US ship pilots sound alarm on unsafe ‘trapdoor’ arrangement

The American Pilots’ Association has issued a request to State Pilotage Authorities regarding pilot safety.

The APA noted that on December 30th 2019 New York-licensed pilot Captain Dennis Sherwood was killed from a fall while embarking an inbound container ship. The embarkation in this instance was via a combination arrangement of an accommodation ladder and a pilot ladder. Such a combination was required whenever the distance from the surface of the water to the point of access to the ship was more than nine metres.

However, the Association said that this particular combination arrangement, involved a trapdoor in the platform of the accommodation ladder, with the pilot ladder hanging from a cross beam near the bottom of the platform, and with the top step of the ladder significantly below the level of the platform. This required a pilot to pull himself or herself up through the trapdoor while twisting to get a secure footing on the platform. The Association said that Captain Sherwood fell while attempting to make that difficult manoeuvre to transfer from the pilot ladder to the platform above.

The Association said that the trapdoor system had long been considered by pilots to be unsafe and noted that the IMO had recognized that it was unsafe by taking steps to eliminate it.

“Since at least 1979, IMO guidelines have recommended that pilot ladders used with a trapdoor extend to the height of the platform’s handrail. The purpose of that recommended practice is to bring the ladder steps up to a level from which the pilot can step across to the platform rather than pull himself or herself up to it”, the American Pilots Association said.

Nine years ago the IMO revised the SOLAS pilot transfer regulation and its implementing guidelines in response to continuing complaints about unsafe pilot transfer arrangements. The effective date for the new standards was July 1st 2012. Several of the revisions addressed the use of trapdoors in combination arrangements and were intended to eliminate pilot ladders that hang from the bottom or near-bottom of the platform, as well as other problems with such arrangements. The Association said that it was “frustrating, and now tragic, that pilots continue to encounter, and have to deal with, trapdoor arrangements like the one found on the ship from which Captain Sherwood fell”.

The Association noted that replacing or retrofitting equipment to meet the standards would not be a significant project.