Ensuring safety during lifeboat drills


The potential dangers of lifeboat drills are in the news once again this week, following an incident during a lifeboat drill, which has left one crew member dead, and four injured. A study in 2014 by a UK safety group using accumulated data over a ten-year period indicated that incidents involving lifeboats and their launching systems had caused nearly 16% of the total lives lost by merchant mariners. Even more survived lifeboat incidents but suffered severe injuries of the spine and lower extremities. All of these accidents occurred during training exercises or drills, supervised by qualified, experienced seafarers.

Getting to grips with lifeboats

As the design of lifeboats has progressed, the requirement to understand the mechanics of launching operations has become more complicated. UK Club Loss Prevention Risk Assessor, Captain Anuj Velankar remembers when he was at sea in the mid-nineties, a distrust of lifeboats was already brewing.

In Captain Velankar's view,  merchant ships such as tankers and bulk carriers,  are progressively losing touch with the maintenance of wires and ropes due to lack of routine. The release mechanism are often very poorly understood on ships today and this is leading to increasing detentions and delays for shipowners.

Sometimes the design of the launching system is itself flawed. The UK Club has previously dealt with an incident involving a release mechanism of a safety hook which opened without any physical action by the crew. The boat fell over eight meters to the water causing three crew members to sustain fractures to their ankles, legs and spine. The investigation discovered that when the hoisting wire became kinked on the drum, the mass force of that action caused the hook to release without any contact by a crew member. The recommendation was to replace such safety hooks with a modified version which included a safety lock pin.

Some lifeboat incidents occur which cannot be explained by the experts. For example,  a lifeboat drill injury recently occurred when a boat was being raised by a winch to within a foot or two of being in the fully stowed position. The winch was automatically programmed to stop at this point, as the rest of the stowing was done by use of a hand crank on deck. All mechanisms were working properly but when a crew member inserted the hand crank to fully stow the boat, the hand crank suddenly began to rotate and whipped around and struck the crew member in the head causing injury and hearing loss. There was no brake malfunction and the incident could not be duplicated in further testing. There was corrosion on the electrical panel and some improper fuses in place, but the investigation was inconclusive as to the cause of the hand crank failure.

What is the solution?

The lessons learned from the prior incidents can be summarised as follows:

  • The entire crew should be capable of operating lifeboat systems and understanding the mechanics and procedures even with minimum training or experience.
  • Communication between the crew during drills must be clear, with confirmed completion of each step throughout the exercise.
  • When the design of the lifeboat launch system and its components are complicated, Members should consistently train on the operation, repair and maintenance of the entire lifeboat system. If necessary, require that the manufacturer supply easy to understand instructions and diagrams to explain the proper operation or create a common operating procedure safety manual independent of the manufacturer instructions.

The remedy for lack of familiarity with lifeboats among crew members and human error is through the continuous training of staff and sufficient risk assessment procedures. The most effective training for the seafarers is for them to know why something is done in a particular way, to better understand the procedures - not just remember them. As a result, their understanding should give crew members more confidence in the systems.

Training should specifically address the launching of lifeboats and the correct maintenance and handling procedures to enable seafarers to safely use and maintain the equipment under all conditions.

Drills must be reliable and safe with minimum risk to those participating. The IMO amended SOLAS in 2006 and 2008 to address conditions under which lifeboat drills are conducted, introduce changes to the maintenance and inspection requirements, and drills without  requiring crew members to be onboard the boat.The review and studies included guidance for the launch of free-fall lifeboats during drills, and the servicing of launching systems and on-load/off-load release mechanisms. The intent is to prevent accidents and instil confidence in the crew members during abandon-ship drills.

Lifeboat Bow Tie diagram

Refer to the above attached PDF.

Hazard, threats and consequences:

In the centre of the diagram, Hazardous Activities is identified as the 'hazard', while blue squares to the left identify a range of 'threats', which, if not controlled, could cause a serious incident involving P&I claims and other consequences which can be seen in the red shape on the far right of the diagram.


Between these extremities can be seen the 'controls' which, if they work properly, will prevent the accident happening and on the right hand side of the diagram, controls which will mitigate the consequences.

Thus taking as an example the threat of Lifeboat Launching (left hand side), controls which should be in place to prevent this include machinery guards, inspection and planned maintenance, lifeboat release hook testing, good system maintenance and for exercises to be conducted in calm conditions.


The consequences of an accident (right hand side) will be mitigated by the capability of the crew to deal with an incident, good record keeping, emergency reporting and communication procedures, systems and procedures to maintain steering, emergency drills, clear abort procedures and recovery measures implemented by well-trained crew.


This example shows only one threat. A full 'Bowtie' with all the threats can be provided on request.


Staff Author