H.1.1 Introduction

Maritime safety has improved in recent years, driven by continually evolving regulation and the development of a safety culture within the industry [1]. But accidents still occur.

When accidents happen at sea there is no guarantee that emergency responders will arrive promptly. Depending on the location of the incident and the weather prevailing at the time, it may be a matter of days before help can arrive. It is quite possible that the ship’s crew will have to manage an incident without support for a period of time, so training and a robust safety culture are vital.

H.1.2 Risk assessment

Many factors have been identified as contributing to the occurrence and/or severity of different shipboard incidents. These include [2][3]:

  • An insufficient number of seafarers on board, particularly on vessels employed in the short sea routes between ports in northern Europe. It may be impossible for such vessels to post lookouts at all times without exceeding the maximum permitted working hours.
  • Fatigue caused by long working hours, leading to watch keepers and look outs falling asleep or losing focus
  • Insufficient training in the use of modern electronic navigation equipment. This can lead to a lack of awareness or a failure to correctly evaluate the information being provided to the watch keeper
  • Improper bridge team management, which may lead to uncertainty over who has control. Examples include when the master appears on the bridge and the officer of the watch assumes the master has taken over, or when a pilot is embarked and the bridge team fail to monitor his actions
  • An over-reliance on electronic navigation equipment leading to failure to keep a visual lookout.
  • Improper navigation such as faulty passage planning or a failure to allow for tides and currents
  • Interaction with the seabed in shallow waters or with a riverbank in narrow channels
  • Dragging anchors
  • Mechanical breakdown.
  • Adverse weather
  • Incorrect stowage of cargo

H.1.3 Risk management

The likelihood of and the impact of a ship incident can be reduced by such measures as:

  • Training of crew including drills on board for firefighting, abandon ship etc., and realistic emergency response exercises.
  • Learning lessons from previous accidents recorded by organisations such as CHIRP Maritime [4] and MARS [5]
  • Effective bridge management and a thorough understanding of the proper use of all aids to navigation
  • Effective safety management systems
  • Regulated hours and avoidance of fatigue
  • Improved weather routing
  • Improved ship design
  • Prompt reporting of the incident to managers and shore authorities as appropriate

Much of this is beyond the scope of this textbook, but the best way to manage these risks is by having a mature safety culture throughout the company, and establishing a system where juniors are not afraid to question their seniors and where there is open dialogue between vessels and management.

H.1.4 Types of incidents


The International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, 1972 (Colregs) [6] describe the safe interaction between vessels at sea. All navigating officers are required to have an in-depth knowledge of Colregs, yet collisions still happen.

A serious collision can lead to cargo damage and death or injury to passengers and crew. Ingress of water can lead to a loss of stability, so the effects should be calculated. If this cannot be done on board then assistance should be sought from the vessel’s managers. Such incidents are particularly traumatic for the officers involved, since they know they will be subject to intense scrutiny and may lose their jobs if they are found to have been at fault. The trauma will be even greater if there have been fatalities, and this can lead to psychological problems that many shipping companies are not equipped to recognise or deal with. Further information in this area is available in Ch. 5.2 and from organisations such as Recall Recover Limited [7]


Groundings can be either hard or soft. In a soft grounding, the vessel touches the bottom on a sandy seabed or the muddy bank of a river and there is little damage. In such cases, it is likely the vessel can be refloated on the next high tide, or after removing some of the cargo, and the medical implications are unlikely to be serious.

Hard groundings tend to involve rocky coastlines or coral reefs, where the vessel can experience severe damage and breaches of the hull. Vessels that break down near a ‘lee shore’ may be pushed onto the rocks by wind and waves, and the same may happen when a ship at anchor starts to drag in bad weather In rough seas a vessel can pound up and down until the damage is so severe that it may capsize or sink. Grounding in environmentally sensitive areas such as coral reefs can lead to massive claims against the ship and her owners and crew.

Hard groundings can lead to injuries from falling objects or equipment breaking loose, but the greatest danger comes when the hull is breached and the vessel is likely to capsize or sink. Once again, it is vital to assess the damaged stability condition (for which management assistance may be required).

Foundering and Capsize

A ship may sink or capsize for a number of reasons, including stress of weather, hull damage or cargo liquefaction. Cargo liquefaction occurs when the water content of a bulk cargo is too high, which allows the cargo to shift to one side and cause a dangerous angle of list to develop. Simple tests can be conducted at the loading port, but an experienced surveyor should be employed to monitor the loading and test the cargo. If the moisture content is too high then the cargo should be rejected. DNV/GL [8] and a number of other authorities have published useful guidelines. If time permits, the crew should don survival suits and attempt to get away in survival craft, but there is a danger that these events may happen suddenly, in which case there is a risk of seafarers finding themselves in the water. This may expose them to the risk of hypothermia or drowning.

Shipboard Fires

Shipboard fires can break out at any time and can have many different causes. The most common causes are [9]:

  • Leaking fuel igniting on a hot surface in the engine room. Proper maintenance can prevent this, yet it remains the most common cause of shipboard fires.
  • Electrical fires caused by faulty wiring or improper maintenance.
  • Hot work such as welding or cutting without the implementation of proper safety precautions. Typical examples include hot sparks igniting oily rags nearby, or heat being conducted through a steel deck and igniting objects on the other side
  • Accommodation fires caused by cigarettes that are not extinguished properly, oil pans left on galley hotplates etc. It is worth noting that it is very rare for fires to be started deliberately or as an act of malice
  • Cargo fires caused by self-heating of commodities such as coal, or by certain cargoes becoming wet and generating heat. There have also been a number of fires on container ships, often caused by dangerous cargo that was not declared and hence not stowed in an appropriate location
  • Fires on oil, gas or chemical tankers are often caused by spills or the presence of vapour. Electrical equipment operating in the vicinity, static electricity or even sparks emitted when a tool is dropped on the deck may cause ignitions

A fire is likely to lead to a number of mishaps and injuries, from collisions as the seafarers rush to fight the fire to slips, trips and falls. There may be injuries from falling cargo and of course severe burns or cases of smoke inhalation. In very serious fires, seafarers may be forced to abandon the vessel before they have time to dress properly or launch the survival craft, which can lead to cases of hypothermia or drowning. If too much water is used to fight a fire and it cannot be pumped out, there is a danger of loss of stability and subsequent capsize or sinking. Free surface effect can also reduce stability when water is allowed to collect, particularly in large, unobstructed spaces.

H.1.5 Impact

Cargo damage

If the collision causes hull damage and an ingress of seawater, there is a danger of certain cargoes reacting with the water to form compounds or gases that are toxic or explosive. With bulk cargoes the dangers are outlined in the International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code (IMDG Code)[10], but on container ships it is much more difficult because of the huge number of different cargoes carried. There is also a danger that the contents of containers were wrongly stated to avoid extra freight charges or the requirements imposed on dangerous cargoes. Medical responders should be alert for signs of exposure to gas, poison or corrosive liquids. Cargo may also move and cause injuries or a loss of stability.

Injuries to passengers and seafarers

If hull damage occurs in areas where seafarers are living or working, then serious injuries can result. Typical injuries include crush injuries, broken bones and lacerations that may be beyond the abilities of the surviving seafarers to deal with.

High-speed passenger craft are particularly vulnerable if they are involved in a collision. Normally these are lightweight vessels constructed from aluminium, which tends to split on impact and send very sharp metal edges into the passenger compartment. Very serious wounds and even the amputation of limbs may result. The sudden reduction of speed also causes injuries, particularly if passengers are not wearing their seat belts. Passengers’ legs are often forced under the seat in front, which can cause severe leg injuries. Head injuries are also common.

Abandon ship

The crew, and passengers if on board, may be forced to abandon ship and attempt to reach the shore, which can lead to injuries, particularly crush injuries, when attempting to launch lifeboats. In some instances, there may not be time to ensure seafarers and passengers wear appropriate clothing, for example, immersion suits, or to launch lifeboats or life rafts. Immersion in the water can lead to hypothermia, while attempts to clamber ashore can lead to lacerations and near drowning. Seafarers who find themselves in a lifeboat or raft or ashore in an inhospitable landscape may also face problems such as dehydration if they are not rescued immediately. Further information can be found in Ch 9.10.


[1] Safety and Shipping Review 2017. Allianz Global Corporate and Speciality.             

[2] Collisions at Sea – Unavoidable? Capt. R. Wohrn. Gard Insight No. 185 of 2007.

[3] Shipping Accidents, Damage Assessment and Accident Consequences. Styliadis T. and Koliousis I. University of Piraeus.



[6] Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, 1972. International Maritime Organisation. London.


[8] www.DNV_GL_Bulk_Cargo_Liquefaction.pdf

[9] Ship Fires – Where?How? Prevention! Mullen Dr. E. Burgoyne and Partners.

[10] International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code 2018, with Supplements and Amendments. International Maritime Organisation. London.