Climbing up an H&S quagmire

Pilots are becoming more vociferous about boarding vessels with ladder deficiencies. Credit: IMPA Pilots are becoming more vociferous about boarding vessels with ladder deficiencies. Credit: IMPA

Dave MacIntyre finds out why pilot ladders are a concern for port health and safety compliance.

Port companies who directly employ — or contract the services of — pilots are being put on notice that ship movements could potentially be stopped if deficiencies with pilot ladders are not corrected.

While ports have no control over the standard of ladders presented by visiting ships, they have a duty under health and safety legislation to ensure employees and contractors work in a safe environment.

Normally a vessel is able to rectify deficiencies or present an alternative ladder, but if it is in pilotage waters and cannot present an acceptable means of boarding, it cannot proceed to the berth.

Therefore, if pilots refuse to board a vessel, not only will the port's commercial trade be affected, the port itself will be duty bound to support the pilots' actions.

In New Zealand recently a pilot noticed that a ship calling at Wellington had a ladder design that was significantly non-compliant. He indicated he would refuse to board the vessel when it next visited, unless it was modified.

He was supported by the port company (CentrePort Wellington) and the regulator (Maritime NZ) then directed the shipowner to remedy the compliance issue before the next voyage to NZ.

Traditionally, pilots worldwide have simply got on with the job and accepted deficient ladders but their attitude is hardening. The International Maritime Pilots' Association (IMPA) provided Port Strategy with statistics showing that nearly 30 pilot deaths have occurred since 2005, about half of which were caused or influenced by ladder failures or non-compliance issues.

Pilots globally now share information daily via websites, apps and social media, reporting on ships which have deficiencies and putting pilots in other ports on alert.

Faults are common. The IMPA lists some of the main flaws as being steps and side ropes made of unsuitable material or broken, steps not equally spaced or not horizontal, the ladder height being more than the maximum permissible nine metres, incorrect fittings, unsuitable securing arrangements on deck, the ladder not hanging flush to the hull, and lack of magnets or securings at the gangway step (on high-freeboard ships where the ladder connects to a gangway).

Lack of knowledge

Nick Cutmore, secretary general of IMPA, says the overall major deficiency is in the rigging.

“Whilst there are many duff ladders offered, often a pilot only discovers at main deck level how little/poor the securing arrangements are. Our major concern at present is the lack of knowledge (admittedly one class society) of surveyors who sign off non-SOLAS-compliant arrangements.”

These complaints are validated by UK-based Trinity House-licensed deepsea pilot Kevin Vallance, who recently authored a guide entitled Pilot Ladder Manual – Advanced which outlines the rules, regulations and procedures that should be followed when preparing for embarkation and disembarkation.

His interest in pilot transfers was prompted by two near-miss situations where there was a serious risk of personal injury or worse.

“Consistently, independent safety surveys conducted over the past decade point towards non-compliance of around 20%, i.e. one in five pilot ladders rigged can be considered to be unsafe!

“Those of us who take an active interest in the subject suspect that the actual figure is much higher.”

Capt Vallance says SOLAS V Regulation 23 and IMO Resolution A1045 assume levels of seamanship skills which are not always found on vessels nowadays.

“Put simply, because pilot ladders are no longer made on board, most people have no understanding of how and why a pilot ladder is constructed.”

He approves of pilots taking a stand on health and safety grounds. “The only way that pilots can hope to improve the situation is by refusing to accept poorly-rigged unsafe ladders. Initially, low-level noncompliance reports to the authorities can be tried to rectify problems. For more serious or continuing problems, the only solution is for pilots to decline to board such vessels.”

Steve Banks and Lew Henderson, president and vice president of the New Zealand Maritime Pilots Association, say their association has encouraged pilots to report on and highlight ladder deficiencies because they believe the situation is worsening, and regulators need to be more proactive in advising shipping companies that deficiencies will be approached with a firm hand.


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