Confined Space Casualties – Worse Than Expected

Early results of a study by the Maritime Accident Investigators International Forum, MAIIF, of accidents in confined spaces aboard ships suggest that the problem may be far bigger than anticipated. Despite decades of regulation and training, it’s a problem that continued to take the lives of seafarers at an alarming, and under-reported rate.

Still incomplete, the MAIIF figures report 44 deaths and 66 injuries in 63 incidents on ships of 15 Flag States since 1993. The data was supplied by the UK’s MAIB and similar organisations in Vanuatu, Latvia, Cyprus, Marshall Islands and Germany. Figures for Hong Kong have yet to be included and more information has been promised by Sweden and South Africa and Finland.

In an email to MAIIF members, Don Sheetz of the Vanuatu administration, who has been tasked with gathering information for the report, says: “The information obtained so far is very troubling as the problem we originally identified may be even larger than anticipated.”

The study began following last October’s MAIIF meet in Beijing and an impassioned speech by Sweden’s Captain Sven Andersen to 60 maritime investigators from 28 maritime adminmistrations anbd presentations by investigators on a variety of incidents.

A review of incidents already show that a confined space “may be any space, of any size, containing cargo, oil, water, petroleum, or nothing at all. A confined space may even be, as in the case of the fatality on the Monika a cabin where a crewmember died,” says Sheetz.

A new approach may be needed in defining a confined space. Says Sheetz: “It is apparent that the issue of confined space entry is not a single dimensional issue about entering a space which could be defined as a potential risk, but a multi-dimensional one where any space could, by virtue of its cargo, lack of oxygen, use of toxic chemicals, gaseous atmosphere, inerting, etc., cause death or injury, either shortly after the person enters or even several hours later. And the space could be a tiny lazarette, a battery room, a diesel engine cylinder, a boiler, a paint locker, an access way, a cargo hold, a cargo tank, a pump room, a chain locker, a fore peak or after peak tank, void spaces, fish meal processing rooms, the carpenter’s shop, etc. It could be small enough to permit access only to a person’s head or it could be 100,000 cubic meters or more in size.”

Bob Couttie, administrator of Maritime Accident Casebook, a maritime safety internet site at, which operates a confidential reporting system for seafarers, says: “Confined spaces often don’t have visible hazards so there’s a lot of complacency. Very saddening are those cases in which would-be rescuers come to grief trying to save a fellow seafarer. What we have to look at is how to establish and maintain seafarer competency in the workplace. Until the industry addresses the competency issue we’ll go on seeing this kind of incident.”


Do you have experience of a confined space incident, an actual or close call incident, whether officially reported or not? Sharing that information through the Maritime Accident Casebook confidential report system might help save the lives of other seafarers. Your identity will remain confidential. The address is


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