Fresh concerns over the safety of marine pilots when boarding ships have been raised following an investigation into a serious accident near the French port of Rouen.
A pilot had to undergo surgery after suffering multiple fractures when he lost his balance and fell from a ladder onto the deck of a pilot launch while boarding the Panama-flagged bulk carrier Van Star on the River Seine in April 2021.
Investigators found that the step the pilot was standing on when he fell was a replacement which was thicker than the others, slightly altering the distance between the steps. A fixing piece was also missing on one side and the investigation showed there was slight instability of the step.
Although this step was not the direct cause of the fall, a report by the French accident investigation body BEAmer concludes that it had probably unsettled him as he was climbing towards the underside of the accommodation ladder platform.
Investigators determined that the pilot ladder, in combination with the accommodation ladder, was deficient in the way it was rigged because the accommodation ladder was not properly secured to the ship's side.
'In the darkness, accentuated by the presence of the platform, he could no longer progress because the accommodation ladder, positioned in front of the pilot ladder, prevented him from grasping the forward rope located between the ship’s plating and the platform,' the report found.
BEAmer's report notes the widespread concern over pilot safety and the efforts by the International Maritime Pilots’ Association (IMPA) to tackle the problems. However, it warns that it is difficult to establish an accurate picture of the levels of deficient pilot ladders and suggests that almost 90% of non-compliant cases are not officially reported.
The investigators said that the lack of a formal briefing prior to the transfer of the pilot from the launch to the 61,508dwt bulk carrier had contributed towards the accident and BEAmer said that after questioning pilots from different stations it had established that transfer practices are not harmonised.
Techniques for the safe use of pilot boarding arrangements are 'hardly ever' addressed in training, the report adds, and 'there have been no technological advances in how to pick up a pilot onboard a ship. Indeed, the equipment has not or hardly evolved'.
In addition, BEAmer notes, 'there is no standard approach to the manoeuvre to be performed by the pilot boat when the pilot is on the ladder'.
Following the accident, the French Federation of Marine Pilots (FFPM) discovered that there had been 160 accidents involving its members in the previous 20 years, in which one died, three were left permanently out of work and one had to have a leg amputated.
The report recommends that FFPM should seek to encourage training in best practices for safe transfers by ladders, and it calls for the Seine river pilot station to set up a briefing procedure between pilots and ship masters. It urges the Van Star's owners to ensure officers and crew are aware of the care that must be taken in the rigging of pilot boarding arrangements.