Fires & Explosions

Fires and explosions can cause total losses of vessels, just as much as storms can. Often, the injuries workers sustain in such incidents can be avoided. Burn injuries, crushing injuries, loss of hearing and loss of limbs are common results. Fires are often involved in barge, dredge, oil rig, and cargo ship accidents.

Elements Contributing to Accidents

For a fire to start on a vessel, a source of ignition is needed. Also, combustible materials must be present, and both need exposure to air. The most common area for a fire to occur is in the engine room, particularly in areas that are not insulated, and hot. Oil leaks are often involved.

Fires also occur in cargo areas. Many types of materials can be problematic, and even a lit cigarette may be all that is needed to provide a source of ignition. Most of the time, fire situations occur when a ship is at sea, and just a fraction of them happen while the vessel is in a shipyard or drydock.

Hot work is a major source of concern. Fire and explosion hazards are created by welding, burning, and cutting, as well as abrasive blasting. Anything that produces heat in a confined space can be potentially dangerous. Various OSHA guidelines cover how to prepare spaces for hot work, test and certify equipment and spaces by individuals such as marine chemists, and maintain safe operations and conditions. Even adjacent spaces require evaluation because nearby hot work can cause a fire or explosion.


Preventative measures begin with machinery. All areas around machines should be kept clean, and crews should ensure there are no oil leaks nearby. Other routine maintenance activities include checking pipes and fittings, repairing any that need to be, and shielding high-pressure fuel oil pipes. Hot surfaces should be insulated to prevent the transfer of heat that can cause ignition.

Incidents can also be prevented by establishing designated areas for storing combustible materials. Valves, fire dampers, and electrical connections and contactors should be tested and checked. Crews should also test fire alarms, so they’ll be alerted to dangerous conditions in an engine room or other areas.

In a cargo hold, no one should be allowed to smoke, whether it is in the cargo hold, a container, or open hatchway. If materials prone to ignition are being transported, temperatures should be monitored, and crews should also avoid unnecessary ventilation. In addition to national procedural and safety regulations, crews must follow the International Maritime Dangerous Goods code, especially when stowing, separating, and lashing hazardous goods and materials.

Various maritime laws protect those injured or killed while working. If a fire/explosion is caused by the actions or negligence of a vessel owner or other party, they may be held accountable under the law, and be required to compensate the injured victim or their families.

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