Hot work hazard

Australian authorities are urging ship managers to make sure crew are better supported to prevent onboard fires — after investigating the tenth such incident in one company’s fleet  

Australian authorities are urging ship managers to make sure crew are better supported to prevent onboard fires — after investigating the tenth such incident in one company’s fleet  

In March 2021, a fire broke out inside a hold of the 161m (528ft) cargo ship BBC Rhonetal as it lay alongside in Port Hedland, Western Australia. At the time ‘hot work’ was taking place, with the ship’s bosun, a qualified welder, using a plasma torch to cut ‘sea fastenings’ that had previously been welded to the deck to help secure the vessel’s cargo of heavy mining machinery, destined for the mining industry, during passage.  

As the bosun’s cutting gradually progressed aftwards, stevedores followed behind him, using the ship’s crane to discharge items of cargo once their fastenings were released.  

An ordinary seaman was tasked with maintaining a fire watch in the hold directly below the hot work. He was equipped with a fire extinguisher, two buckets of water, a flashlight and a handheld radio. During the work, the ordinary seaman was instructed by the bosun to start removing the remnants left after the plasma cutting with a grinder. Shortly afterwards smoke rose from the lower hold, intensifying quickly, and billowing out across the wharf. 

Efforts to extinguish the blaze were unsuccessful, and the intensity of the smoke eventually forced the crew and stevedores to evacuate to the deck. An emergency was called and shoreside emergency authorities, including the fire brigade, quickly arrived. As the situation escalated, the hatch cover was closed and the ship's fixed fire fighting system was used to flood the hold with carbon dioxide. Three harbour tugs stood by to shoot water across the ship’s decks to help cool it down. The fire was finally extinguished three days later. 

Investigation report 

An accident investigation by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) discovered that sparks and molten metal generated during the cutting of the sea fastenings had fallen through gaps in the deck and ignited combustible cargo stowed in the hold below. 

The hot work had continued after the fire watch had been asked to leave the lower hold to use the grinder, and, as a result, no one was in a position to identify or respond to a fire. 

The cargo stowed in the lower hold had not been adequately assessed as a fire risk nor been protected before the hot work began. It was the tenth such fire on a ship managed by the same management company in the previous 14 years, and the fourth investigated by the ATSB, who had identified similar contributing factors. 

Safety protocols 

“The continuing incidence of fires on the cargo holds of ships while performing hot work highlights the importance of adhering to shipboard procedures and recognised safe work guidelines for hot work,” explains ATSB chief commissioner Angus Mitchell. 

“Ship operators and managers must ensure their safety management system protocols for hot work are suitable and properly implemented on board their ships. This requires regular verification that ships’ crew understand and follow safe work practices for hot work.” 

BBC Rhonetal 3

Example of project cargo securing (Credit: / ATSB report)

Safety actions 

BBC Rhonetal’s managers, Briese Heavylift, based in Germany, have now advised the ATSB that the shipboard procedures for hot work on its ships will be amended to better describe the fire watch role, with a greater emphasis on its importance in fire prevention.  

Fire watch requirements will also be integrated into the hot work permit procedure and additional equipment for the fire watch is to be distributed across the fleet. The company says it will also educate its crews on the amended procedures through a training video with shore-based staff further reiterating safe hot work practices during shipboard inspections.   

The ATSB believes this proposed safety action plan has the potential to address the safety issues that have arisen several times around hot work on the company’s vessels, but that it still wants to see a clearer timeline set out for its implementation.  

Similar occurrences 

The fire onboard BBC Rhonetal was the tenth fire incident attributed to hot work aboard a Briese Heavylift ship since 2007, four of which have occurred in Australian ports. 

In August 2007, a fire broke out on BBC Islander in Western Australia while the crew were cutting fastenings on a hatch cover with an oxy-acetylene torch. It took two days to extinguish the fire, and then only after the hold had been flooded with water. 

In January 2012, a fire broke out on BBC Baltic, also in Port Hedland, when oxy-acetylene equipment was being used to remove fastenings, which resulted in a fire ball. No fire watch was in place and the crew had no clear understanding of the action to take in case of a fire. 

In December 2017, a fire erupted aboard BBC Xingang while alongside in Newcastle, New South Wales, also during the removal of sea fastenings. 

Read the ATSB accident investigation report into BBC Rhonetal. 

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