Real Life Incident: Fuel Soaked Clothes Catch Fire, Engineer Loses Life

A dredger was on site and in the process of dredging when the engineer of the watch (EOW) smelt diesel oil in the engine room. He found a small leak in the low-pressure diesel oil supply line to the main engine. Physical evidence indicates that he was attempting to make a temporary repair while the main engine remained running, without informing the bridge team or the chief engineer.

It would appear that during the repair process the engineer’s overalls became soaked in fuel. When he subsequently used a portable angle grinder, sparks from the grinding disc probably ignited the atomised fuel from the leak as well as his diesel soaked clothing. This resulted in his overalls catching fire and igniting a ­fire in the engine room. The EOW was nonetheless able to exit the engine room and reach medical assistance.

repair accident
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The ­fire in the engine room was extinguished using the ­fixed CO2 smothering system. The EOW’s burns were so severe that he ultimately succumbed and was later pronounced dead.

Some of the findings of the official report were:

  • The EOW informed neither the chief engineer nor the bridge OOW of the fuel leak and his apparent intention to repair it. His reason for not doing so is likely to have been influenced by the onboard culture of routine lone working and absence of regular and frequent communication.
  • The fact that sparks generated by using ­fixed and portable angle grinders produce a hot work hazard is not currently acknowledged in marine industry guidance.
  • The EOW would have been aware that isolating the fuel system would have involved stopping the main engine which, in turn, would have interrupted the loading programme. It might have been his professional pride and con­fidence in his ability to successfully complete the repair that drove him to carry on with the task.

Lessons learned

  • Safety should be a personal and company value that takes precedence over commercial activities or professional pride. Undertaking a repair on the fuel system while the vessel continued to work and without informing other crew or the bridge team was a major failing that ultimately cost the EOW his life.
  • Sparks from an angle grinder can be sufficient to ignite a ­fire given the right conditions.


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