Pandemic pressures

The death of an oil tanker captain has been linked directly to the stress created by increased workloads and depleted manpower during the COVID crisis.  

The death of an oil tanker captain has been linked directly to the stress created by increased workloads and depleted manpower during the COVID crisis.  

In October 2020, the 228m (748ft) tanker Stavanger Bliss left the port of Dalian, China, after unloading a cargo of crude oil. Days later, as the ship lay at anchor off South Korea, its captain received news that the terminal in Dalian was unsure how much of the cargo had remained on board (ROB) the vessel, because — due to strict COVID-19 restrictions — a cargo surveyor had not been allowed on board at the time to sound or measure the tanks. 

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The 228m (748ft) tanker Stavanger Bliss. (Credit: Frans Sanderse)

Concerned about the development, the captain told his crew that he wanted to check the ROB status in one of the ship’s cargo tanks himself — despite the fact that plans were, by now, being put in place to have the tanks inspected at Stavanger Bliss’ next port of call. 

The captain said he wanted one of the starboard cargo tanks opened, but when that proved too difficult, he changed his mind and decided instead to inspect one of the port cargo tanks. 

When the bosun, who was preparing the mooring ropes on the forecastle, noticed the captain near the port cargo tank wearing a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), he ran over, and — based on the management company’s tank entry procedures and Stop-Work-Authority (SWA) policy — asked the captain to not enter the cargo tank as it had not been cleared for entry due to the fact it contained inert gases, hydrocarbon gases and very low oxygen levels. The captain, however, dismissed the intervention and entered the tank.

The bosun then used his handheld UHF radio to try to communicate with the captain once he was inside the tank. When the chief officer was told that the captain had not replied on the radio for around 18 minutes, he declared an emergency and sent a two-man rescue team wearing breathing apparatus into the tank. They found the captain lying on his back, unconscious. His face mask had come loose and the SCBA set had run out of air.

Ropes were used to lift the captain out of the tank and he was then taken onto the deck. With no pulse or breath detected, cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and oxygen resuscitation were immediately administered, but without success. A post-mortem report indicated that the cause of death was a coronary infarct.  

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The captain entered the enclosed space with self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), but when found, his mask had come loose and the SCBA set had run out of air. (Credit: Shutterstock)

Work overload  

A report into the incident by the Norwegian Safety Investigation Authority (NSIA) has concluded that the combined challenges facing those aboard the ship at the time, during the pandemic period, “created an extraordinary situation that affected the decisions made by the captain on the day that contributed to the accident”.

The report outlines how the COVID-19 pandemic made it almost impossible for the ship’s management company to secure relevant personnel when required, carry out crew changeovers, or attain visas because most embassies were closed — all of which put the crew, and in particular Stavanger Bliss’ captain, under increased workloads and stress.

Aboard Stavanger Bliss, a severe lack of manpower due to an outbreak of COVID-19 had led to the captain having to adopt an improvised unloading operation while in Dalian. Neither his chief officer nor his second officer were able to take part in the work, and the third officer, who had signed onto the vessel just two weeks previously, had no prior experience of watch duty during an unloading operation aboard a tanker. The captain, himself, had not worked an unloading watch for at least 15 years.  

Established procedures  

The NSIA report concludes that while it remains unclear exactly why the captain decided to enter the tank, it is likely that he wanted to gain an overview of the situation within the tank for himself as a result of his heightened worries about the ROB claim. 

At the time, the ship’s management company had clearly established tank entry procedures in place which stated that entering tanks with an unsafe atmosphere was not permitted.

The report notes that the management company has now implemented several extra measures to prevent similar accidents — including a greater focus on the use and expectations of Stop Work Authority as well as assessments of the distance in power relationships — and that no further safety recommendations are, therefore, required. 

High death toll 

“Enclosed space accidents are one of the biggest occupational killers aboard ship — resulting in around ten to twenty seafarer deaths each year,” explains Martin Shaw, President-elect and outgoing chair of the IMarEST's Human Element Working Group

“IMarEST members who have to go into enclosed spaces need to be aware that enclosed space deaths, while mostly occurring in cargo areas, can also occur elsewhere — including in bunker tanks, other consumable tanks, and even inside machinery.” 

Read the full NSIA accident investigation report.  

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Dennis O’Neill is a freelance journalistspecialisingin maritime.