Ship management company

Recommendations made to the shipowner after the tenth fire in 14 years

Key points

  • A fire in the hold of a general cargo ship in Port Hedland in March 2021 was the tenth such fire on a company vessel in the past 14 years, and the fourth investigated by the ATSB, identifying factors similar contributory;
  • The ATSB issued safety recommendations to the ship’s management company and its parent company, to implement the proposed safety measures in their fleets;
  • The continued incidence of fires on ships during hot work shows that ship operators need to ensure that their safety management system procedures for hot work are appropriate and correctly implemented.

The Australian Transport Safety Board has issued safety recommendations to the managers and parent company of the BBC freighter Rhonetal, following an investigation into a fire in the ship’s hold in Port Hedland, Western Australia.

The vessel was alongside in Port Hedland on the morning of March 25, 2021 when a fire broke out in the lower cargo hold while hot work using a plasma torch to cut the marine welded fasteners of the cargo units for unloading. The fire was not declared extinguished until three days later.

The ATSB Transportation Safety investigation into the incident found it was the tenth such fire on a vessel operated by the same parent company in the past 14 years, and the fourth on which the ATSB investigated, identifying similar contributing factors.

“The ATSB investigation found that the fire hazard was not properly assessed by the crew prior to the start of hot work,” said ATSB Chief Commissioner Angus Mitchell.

“As a result, a continuous fire watch was not maintained and appropriate precautions were not taken to sufficiently protect vulnerable cargoes from fire.”

The ATSB found that BBC Rhonetal officials failed to effectively implement onboard safety management system procedures to prevent the fire.

“The continuing incidence of fires in ships’ cargo holds during hot work underscores the importance of following shipboard procedures and recognized safe work guidelines for hot work,” said Mitchell.

BBC Rhonetal officials have informed the ATSB that hot work procedures will be amended to better describe the role of the fire watch, highlighting its importance in preventing fires. Fire watch requirements will also be incorporated into the hot work permit process and additional fire watch equipment is to be distributed across the fleet.

The company also intends to take steps to inform the flight crew of the modified procedures and additional equipment, including through the implementation of a training video.

“While the ATSB considers that the safety measures proposed by the ship’s managers in this case have the potential to address the hot work safety issue, no timetable has been provided for their implementation, and the ‘ATSB has therefore issued a formal recommendation to the managers of the vessel, and the parent company,’ Mr Mitchell noted.

A safety recommendation from the ATSB remains open until it is satisfied that the responsible organization has resolved the identified safety issue.

“The ATSB recommends that the managers of the ship, Briese Heavylift, and its parent company Briese Schiffahrts, take safety measures to ensure that safety management system procedures are effectively implemented on BBC Rhonetal and all other affected vessels in their fleets,” Mitchell said.

“Vessel operators and managers should ensure that their safety management system protocols for hot work are appropriate and properly implemented on board their vessels,” he concluded.

“This requires regular verification that ships’ crew understand and follow prescribed safe work practices for hot work.”

You can find the report here: MO-2021-002 Fire on board BBC Rhonetal Port Hedland, Western Australia 25 March 2021

Last updated September 21, 2022

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