Granny’s Bloomers and Safety In Confined Spaces

Department stores attach radio frequency Identity, RFID, tags on their goods to ensure that, for instance, their DVD players go out the front door by way of the cash register rather than tucked down some light fingered granny’s bloomers. New versions of that technology have much to offer the maritime industry once it decides to put a premium on safety.

RFID tags contain tiny radio transmitters that can be picked up by a reader. Research being funded, among others, by BP, will see smarter versions appearing in the workplace that can, for instance, monitor work and rest periods, the amount of vibration a worker is exposed to by machinery and ensure that these remain within accepted limited for health. For seafarers, however, these little tell-tales could mean the difference between life and death.

New generation tags can be networked together and detected using the sort of wi-fi technology now common in offices coffee shops, restaurants, bars, and hotels.

In an environment of limited domain, like a ship, the ability to track the location of people and objects accurately can present a number of safety benefits.

The simplest scenario is man overboard. Unless the casualty is lucky enough to be seen falling off the ship it can be hours before he or she is reported missing, as happened in a recent case involving a seafarer on a cruise ship, the Celebrity Constellation. Searches began after the ship docked in Port Everglades and he didn’t show up for a muster. Crew members recalled last seeing him at 5am on the morning of Monday, 18th February. The US Coast Guard called off the 1,500 square mile search on the next evening but restarted when video surfaced showing that the seafarer had actually fallen overboard at 3.25am on the Monday morning. He hasn’t been found.

Had that seafarer been wearing an RFID tag his falling overboard could have set off an alarm and a search started within minutes rather than several hours later.

When it comes to confined space incidents, smart RFID technology worn by seafarers and attached to equipment, could prove even more useful. Not only could it reveal when someone enters a potentially hazardous space but whether they’re wearing the right equipment, whether someone is on watch at the entrance to the space and whether appropriate rescue equipment is in place. Conceivably this could be an entirely automated system.

A shortfall in the present ‘safety systems’ is that they rely on form-filling, an activity seen as an end in itself rather than a means of safety working. Increased training and education will not, by themselves, resolve the enormous problems of confined space entry deaths. Competency assessment certainly will help but companies appear to be reluctant to take that step, possibly because a number know that their crew are not competent and might be deemed liable if they were proven to be aware of that shortfall and it is in their interests ‘not to know’.

It will be interesting, indeed, to see which companies are the first to introduce smart RFID tag technology to keep their seafarers alive.

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