The Marine Accident Investigation Branch has just released the most recent report relating to a Carbon Monoxide Poisoning event. On this occasion it relates to the death of a couple and their dog on board a small modern American Sports Cruiser at Roxham in 2016. The Report and Conclusions have been read against the context of a further fatality occurring to the owner of a cabin cruiser which occurred in similar circumstances at Cardiff Yacht Club some 5 months later.
This therefore brings to four the number of fatal incidents which have occurred involving owners dying on board vessels as a result of the build-up of deadly fumes of carbon monoxide, produced variously by the use of solid fuel burners, or as in the case of Ludd & Lydia, simply operating the vessel’s water cool engine systems to charge the engines whilst moored alongside in the Norfolk Broads.
Whilst the individual circumstances of each of the incidents varies, the single depressing conclusion which has emerged is that a fitting of a simple carbon monoxide alarm, readily available for not much money, would have alerted the victims to the otherwise unobservable and undetectable threat to life that poisoning by carbon monoxide presents.
The Report identifies carbon monoxide to be the natural by-product of a wide range of material including burning of propane gas, solid fuel in stoves as well the more obvious threat presented by exhaust gases from the combustion of petrol and diesel.
What is particularly concerning in all cases is that publicity has been given to the individual incidents, with the inescapable conclusion of the report is that lessons are simply not being learned by the general public, or by the industry, both of whom clearly have a role to play in ensuring that boating is a safe and healthy pastime.
The two most recent incidents (involving the risk, pair of relatively modern GRP cruisers, fitted with extensive canvas cockpit canopies) highlight the inescapable reality that these problems are a consequence of lack of experience and expertise, as owners seemingly are not advised as to the dangers of carbon monoxide build up in respect of their crafts, or the very profound risks and dangers that they face in circumstances where (as in both recent cases) the installations have not hitherto been can present.
It is no coincidence that these small motor cruisers tend also to rely upon extensive cockpit canopies in order to maximise the use of available space, often extending literally to the edge of the transom immediately adjacent to the exhaust outlet. Temptation to secure these canopies to reduce draught contributes towards the effective sealing of the vessel’s interior, rendering it far more easily susceptible to inundation by the invisible effect of the difference in pressure between the interior and the vessel’s exterior adjacent to the source of the gas.
Education is obviously a vital step to be taken, but it cannot be safely assumed that the legal responsibility remains with the owners of the vessel to act in an appropriate fashion.
The sheer number of incidents and the overwhelming evidence of serious flaws in the design of these vessels, presents all those involved in the supply of such vessel with significant legal obligations to ensure that their craft are safe for all contemplated use and in respect of all readily anticipated hazards. The sheer number of reported incidents, and the striking similarities of the facts of the fatalities, now demonstrate beyond any doubt that this is an entirely predictable hazard, thus obliging the industry to now acknowledge and deal with its responsibilities in a proper and coordinated manner.
The fitting of alarms, the significant use of advertising and the Media to alert users to the risks, as well as the introduction of compulsory testing to ascertain the presence and working condition of the alarm should now form part of the Boat Safety tests for vessels used in the Inland Waterway Environment, and further the RCD must be amended to make installation of carbon monoxide detectors compulsory, and further to ensure that they are wired into the vessel’s permanent electronic system so to ensure (as has happened in some of the fatalities) detectors batteries get removed or are deliberately immobilised because of false alerts.
The MAIB Report concludes that whilst some of these detectors may in the past have been unreliable and inaccurate, a further effort could and should be applied to ensuring that this problem is addressed. Ultimately an overactive alarm is a somewhat less worrying cause for concern than continued supine indifference to the problem as has hitherto seemingly been the Industry’s response.
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