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Accidents when using power-operated watertight doors

A recent fatality involving such a door on an IMCA member’s vessel provided a timely reminder of the number of lives lost and the serious injuries caused by the incorrect operation of power-operated watertight doors.

All power-operated watertight doors are designed to ensure maximum safety of the ship and to persons using them, but safe transit through a door which has been closed from the bridge control station requires that the operating instructions be strictly observed.

Examples of recent accidents:

Nordic Apollo – November 1999

Recommended procedures – Transport Canada’s Ship Safety Bulletins dated February 1995 and May 1991 – indicated that the door should be opened by holding the control with one hand and then reaching through and holding the controls on the other. An oiler found crushed in a door was thought to have attempted to go through the hydraulically-operated door prior to it being in the fully open position.

Earlier fatalities involving such doors which occurred in 1981 and 1990 had prompted Transport Canada to issue Safety Bulletins 04/81 and 07/91 respectively.

West of Shetland Operations 1999

Analysis showed that 25% of recorded ‘days away from work’ accidents during the year were attributable to the use of marine doors. An analysis of the root causes revealed that they could be attributed to:

  1. Behavioural attitudes towards the use and dangers of marine doors, which accounted for 90% of the causes of injury;
  2. Marine doors becoming progressively more dangerous due to lack of continuous planned maintenance;
  3. Traditional non-risk based design and approval of marine doors by naval architects and classification societies, who did not appear to have addressed the underlying operational dangers.

Following this analysis, BP Amoco produced an information video – “Get a Handle on Doors”.

IMCA member vessel, North America

While working on ship, a worker was entering a workspace through a watertight door. During his entry the ship rolled with the seas, causing the heavy door to swing violently to a full open position. The worker lost his balance and was unable to maintain control of the door. The worker reached out to brace himself, using his right hand to grasp the doorframe. At that time, the ship rolled to the opposite direction, causing the door to swing back to a closed position, crushing the worker’s thumb between the door and its frame.

This accident prompted the company concerned to issue guidance on hazard elimination – see Annex 1.

Key lessons – Training/familiarisation of crew members new toa vessel

  1. Provide thorough familiarisation with and training in the operation of all power-operated doors, including details of the hazards of such doors. Training should include both review of written procedures and hands-on operational instruction.
  2. Procedures (taken from the UK Marine & Coastguard Agency guidance note MGN 35(M+F))
    1. It is essential that when using a watertight door which has been closed, irrespective of the mode of closure, that both the local controls one on each side of the bulkhead are held in the “open” position while passing through the door. That can be done by first fully opening the door using the nearside control with one hand, reaching through the opening to the control on the far side and using the far side control to keep the door fully open until passage is complete.
    2. A person, when unaccompanied, must have both hands free to operate the controls and should never attempt to carry any load through unassisted. Accordingly supervision should be exercised over any work requiring movement of tools, parts or materials through a door. This will effectively make it a two man operation one man to operate the door and another to carry the load.
    3. To avoid potentially fatal slips, the accumulation of oil leakage in the vicinity of the watertight doors should not be permitted.
    4. Written instructions need to be provided for the ship on the safe operation of the doors and it is essential that all crew members who may use the doors
      1. know what type of control system is fitted;
      2. are well trained in the correct operating procedure for the system; and
      3. fully appreciate the crushing power of watertight doors.

This crushing power, together with expeditious closing, is necessary to ensure that watertight doors fulfil their primary purpose of ensuring maximum safety of the ship and its crew but if accidents to personnel are to be avoided it is essential that the operating instructions are strictly observed. Permanent notices clearly stating the correct operating procedure must be prominently displayed on both sides of every watertight door.


IMCA would like to acknowledge the assistance in the assembly of material for this Safety Flash given by Steven Hart (Sable Offshore Energy), Ken London (Stolt Offshore), Harry Pitcher (Secunda Marine Services) John Watson (Sonsub) and Mike O’Meara (Halliburton).


  1. Transport Canada Ship Safety Bulletin 04/81, 1981 – Accidents when using power-operated watertight doors
  2. Transport Canada Ship Safety Bulletin 07/91, 1991 – Accidents when using power-operated watertight doors
  3. Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board, 23 November 1999 – Nordic Apollo Fatality Report
  4. Secunda Marine Safety Bulletin 02/99
  5. UK Department of Transport Merchant Shipping Notice M1151 – The operational control of watertight doors in passenger ships
  6. UK Marine & Coastguard Agency MGN 35(M+F), November 1999 – Accidents using power-operated watertight doors

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