Gantry crane tragedy

Another onboard crush fatality has highlighted the dangers faced by crewmembers and stevedores — especially when safe working practices are ignored.

Another onboard crush fatality has highlighted the dangers faced by crewmembers and stevedores — especially when safe working practices are ignored.

In July 2020, five stevedores boarded the Gibraltar-registered cargo ship Cimbris in Antwerp to help discharge its 4,000-tonne cargo of coke breeze. The team included a 59-year-old stevedore coordinator whose role was to act as the liaison between the vessel’s gantry crane operator and the other stevedores who would be working down inside the cargo hold. 

When the aft part of the hold had been completed, the ship’s chief officer (C/O) — who was responsible for operating the ship’s gantry crane — and the stevedore coordinator agreed on how they would begin discharging the forward part of the hold, and how the cargo hatch covers would be moved to facilitate the work. The C/O then went back to the crane and the stevedore coordinator walked along the walkway towards the forward part of the hold. 

As the C/O began moving the gantry crane it quickly came to a sudden stop. Realising something was wrong, the C/O climbed down and ran along the walkway, where he found the stevedore coordinator wedged between a gantry crane leg and one of the ship’s hatch covers, in a gap of just 130mm (5in). He immediately called the emergency services, but the stevedore coordinator was declared dead at the scene, having suffered catastrophic injuries.  

A report by the UK’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB), on behalf of the Gibraltar government, has concluded that the hatch cover lifting operation was not properly planned, supervised or executed. Communication between the crew and stevedores was also poor, and the safety cultures demonstrated by both was weak. 

Post-accident trials  

Why the stevedore coordinator placed himself in the path of the moving crane remains unclear, but, according to the report, it is likely he intended to lean over the hatch coaming to communicate with, or assess the progress being made by, the stevedores working down in the hold. Once trapped, he was unable to alert the C/O or stop the crane, probably because he had no time to react and couldn’t reach the emergency stop. 

Post-accident trials indicated that the stevedore coordinator should have been aware that the crane was moving towards him because he had a clear view of the gantry crane from the deck walkway, its warning bell was sounding and its warning light was flashing. He should also have been able to feel the hatch coaming vibrate during the gantry crane’s approach.  

It is likely he was aware that the crane was moving towards him and he simply misjudged its rate of approach — confident he had plenty of time to climb onto the hatch coaming, check on his team’s progress, then move out of the way of the crane.  

It’s also possible his ability to move clear was hampered by a snagging incident or medical event. However, few snagging hazards existed on the coaming and there was no evidence he suffered a medical event, or that he suffered from any drug/alcohol impairment. 

Cimbris 2 Gantry Crane
(The Cimbris gantry crane. Credit: MAIB)

Poor practices 

Cimbris’ safety management system (SMS) document gave clear directions on the safe operation of the vessel and its equipment — including cargo and gantry crane operations. 

The gantry crane risk assessment identified limited visibility from the gantry crane’s control position as a hazard and, to mitigate this, directed that a dedicated lookout/banksman was required, which was ignored. It had also become accepted practice aboard Cimbris for the C/O to operate the gantry crane alone, which, the report says, was also inherently unsafe. 

In turn, the ship’s crew had serious concerns about the working practices adopted by the stevedores — but did not feel empowered enough to stop them. This included the stevedores not wearing safety helmets and routinely climbing on top of, and over, the open hatch coamings without safety harnesses. They also slid down the heaped coke breeze into the hold rather than using the hold’s integral access trunks. 

The MAIB report has recommended that the vessel’s management company takes appropriate actions to improve the safety culture on board its vessels, and that the Antwerp stevedore federation, Centrale der Werkgevers aan de Haven van Antwerpen, improves the safety culture amongst its registered workers. 

Previous incidents 

The incident, once again, highlights a long series of crush deaths and injuries suffered by crew and stevedores over the years, including the accident in 2019 when a crew member aboard the cargo vessel Karina C was also crushed to death between a gantry crane and cargo hatch cover.  

In New Zealand, unions have recently called for urgent action to enforce health and safety at ports following several deaths and injuries around the country, including a 26-year-old stevedore who was killed last month in Auckland after a fall aboard a container ship.

Read the full MAIB report.  

Read the Troublespot article on Karina C.


Dennis O’Neill is a freelance journalist specialising in maritime.