A ship’s combination ladder is a setup where a pilot ladder is used in conjunction with an accommodation ladder to facilitate the embarkation and disembarkation of marine pilots. Since ladders are the only means of access on board, their proper rigging is always an issue, especially the level of safety when rigged on the ship’s side.
Marine pilots suffer injuries and even death due to negligence and complete ignorance of safety procedures when rigging combination ladders. Not only pilots but the deck crew as well.
Bringing this issue to light is one measure to spread awareness and prevent more accidents from happening in the future.
The maritime industry is riddled with news involving combination ladder accidents, many of which are preventable.
Here are a few examples and near-misses.
Combination Ladder Accidents
In a report by Nautical Institute, a crew injured his wrist while securing the pilot ladder to a cleat on the ship’s side during a combination ladder setup,
The crew was wearing complete PPE and a safety harness. After lowering the accommodation ladder to the desired height and the pilot ladder to 1.5 meters, he went down to the bottom platform to secure the pilot ladder with an 8 mm rope.
When he was tying the ladder to the sunken cleat on the ship’s side, a huge wave caught the bottom of the pilot ladder and jerked it aft while the seaman’s hand was on the recess.
It injured his wrist and immediately received first aid after climbing back on deck.
In another scenario reported by Professional Mariner, a veteran Sandy Hook pilot dies after falling from a combination ladder while boarding a container ship.
The arrangement involves a trapdoor wherein the said pilot was struggling to get inside but failed to do so. He slipped and fell off back onto the pilot boat while making his way up the ladder.
This happened at 0430H in the early morning of December 30.
Preventing accidents involving combination ladders
Such incidents above continue to happen. Investigation reveals that they could have been prevented if the risks were fully identified.
On a personal level, I have worked on these ladder setups throughout my career at sea. I must admit that during those times, we experience occasional near-misses of any size, both minor and major, involving rigging and securing combination ladders.
It is important to report these near-misses so the whole company may be made aware and minimize similar occurrences.
Aside from the near-miss factor, proper donning of PPE always helps in many ways.
Over-confidence in the job, and the feeling of knowing everything about rigging combination ladders, are also recipes for disasters. It is helpful to note that most of these accidents involve well-experienced sailors and pilots. A little fear makes you think twice and draws you more to the safe side.
Your tools and equipment will take care of you as long as you take good care of them.
A responsible officer together with the Bosun must conduct regular inspection intervals of the Pilot ladder and the accommodation ladder.
They must check all the fittings, securing arrangements, and any part where something might have damage and need fixing.
Not only them but the whole crew must report to the responsible officers on anything they see that could be a hazard to anyone using the ladder.
They must also check their PPE if still working and in good condition.
Training and familiarization
One of the most effective methods of preventing accidents with combination ladders is thru proper training and familiarization. Training provides opportunities for everyone to learn, grow, and improve their work skills.
But how do you train seafarers to be more safety conscious, in this case, with the combination ladders?
The answer is to divide the training into two- one is tabletop, and the other is practical.
Tabletop training involves discussion inside the ship’s accommodation area. It can be incorporated into the crew’s scheduled drills and meetings. The crew should discuss safety reports from other vessels’ accidents and incidents involving combination ladders.
The practical training is the hands-on approach where they can apply what they learned during the tabletop session.
Perhaps, this is the most important part.
From incidents occurring without anyone getting hurt to suggesting improvements to make the process safer and more efficient is very valuable.
This experience comes from direct observation from the people doing the hands-on task.
Adhering to minor tweaks could help prevent accidents from combination ladder preparations.
In my personal experience, the people on the bridge sometimes push the crew to act hastily. This often leads to minor injuries which are often unreported; or forgetting an important piece during the preparation process, which only gets noticed once the task comes to a close.
Is improvising allowed?
Yes, but no!
I had an experience with a handy-sized tanker vessel wherein we were forced to rig a combination ladder with an existing freeboard of seven meters.
Knowing very well that designs of all combination ladders is for freeboards of 9 meters and above, we had to break every rule in the book because they insisted every reason we throw at them.
Initially, we could not get the height of the accommodation ladder in place. The height between the ladder and the davit pole was not high enough and the visitors have to bend their bodies to avoid hitting the davit when climbing.
We could not lower that ladder more since it would hit with the service boat due to the swell.
For the pilot ladder, we have to secure it on the railings because the bottom platform of the accommodation ladder is not low enough to match the pilot ladder’s securing pad eyes.
We were lucky since everything went smoothly well. But situations like this must be avoided as much as possible.
Human error causes 80% of all accidents on board. It results in injuries and fatalities that could have been averted.
Acknowledging these statistics in our everyday jobs on board could help prevent accidents involving combination ladders.
Even with more experience, it is also helpful to have a little fear when rigging or securing them. It helps you become more cautious and alert to yourself and your teammates.
May the winds be in your favor.