Understanding the Risks of Maritime Vessel Fires

by | Jun 1, 2023 | Burn Injury, Maritime Accident, Maritime Injury, Maritime Law, Offshore Accident

One of the most traumatic events that someone onboard a maritime vessel can experience is an explosion or fire onboard. Fires onboard a vessel occur quickly, are difficult to contain, and put the ship, and the lives of those onboard, at risk.

There are many potential causes of vessel fires, but sadly, the majority are the result of human error. An incorrect part or poorly maintained equipment, for example, can lead to a fire that quickly causes catastrophic damage.

In the below article, the maritime injury attorneys at Kherkher Garcia, LLP discuss one recent incident where an incorrect part led to a vessel fire and more than $1 million in damage.

Investigation Finds Incorrect Bearing was the Cause of the Ocean Guardian Fire

Almost one year to the day after a fire broke out onboard the supply vessel Ocean Guardian, investigators have ruled the cause of the fire to be an incorrect bearing. The vessel was conducting trials when a mechanical problem in the engine caused a fire. Crew members onboard were able to extinguish the fire with no injuries reported. However, more than $1 million in damage was reported to the ship.

The subsequent investigation has revealed that during maintenance, a crankshaft bearing was replaced with a standard sized bearing. With the bearing being too large, a decrease in lube oil pressure occurred. As a result, the temperature increased, causing the rod bearings and other parts to break free from the engine. The resulting fire was limited to the engine room, and the onboard carbon dioxide fire-extinguishing system was successful.

The investigation noted the importance of proper maintenance of onboard equipment, including identifying appropriate parts and ensuring they are replaced with the same part. During maintenance prior to the test, Caterpillar technicians did not notice the incorrect bearing. Since this incident, Caterpillar has implemented more thorough documentation procedures for technicians.

Can Vessel Engine Problems Lead to Fires?

The incident above is just one scenario where an engine problem can cause a vessel fire. In the case of the Ocean Guardian, there were no injuries in the fire. Sadly, this is rarely the case.

Ship engine problems can cause fires in a number of ways. Here are some of the most common causes:

  • Overheating: When a ship engine overheats, it can cause the oil and fuel to catch fire. This is because the heat causes the oil and fuel to vaporize, which creates a flammable gas.
  • Sparks: Sparks from welding or other activities can also ignite flammable materials in the engine room.
  • Electrical Fires: Electrical fires can occur when there is a short circuit or when electrical wires are overloaded.
  • Fuel Leaks: Fuel leaks can also cause fires if the fuel comes into contact with a heat source or an open flame.
  • Hot Surfaces: Hot surfaces in the engine room can ignite flammable materials if they come into contact with them.

To prevent ship engine fires, it is important to regularly inspect and maintain the engine. This includes checking for leaks, overheating, and electrical problems. It is also important to train crew members on how to prevent and fight fires.

Common Causes of Vessel Engine Problems

Ship engine failures can occur due to various reasons, and identifying the specific cause requires a thorough investigation. However, some common causes of ship engine failures include:

Lack of Maintenance

Inadequate or irregular maintenance of ship engines can lead to failures. Proper maintenance includes regular inspections, servicing, and lubrication of engine components. Neglecting maintenance schedules can result in the accumulation of wear and tear, increased risk of malfunctions, and eventual engine failure.

Fuel Contamination

Contaminated fuel can cause engine problems, leading to failures. Impurities, water, or sediment in the fuel can clog fuel filters, injectors, or the fuel system, affecting the engine’s performance and reliability. Regular fuel quality testing and ensuring proper fuel storage and handling can help prevent such issues.

Lubrication Issues

Insufficient or improper lubrication can result in engine failures. Lubrication is crucial for reducing friction and heat in engine components. If there is a lack of lubricating oil or if the oil quality is poor, the engine may suffer from increased friction, overheating, and accelerated wear and tear.

Cooling System Problems

The cooling system in ship engines helps regulate the engine temperature and prevents overheating. Issues with the cooling system, such as blockages, leaks, or malfunctioning components like pumps or thermostats, can lead to engine failures due to excessive heat buildup.

Electrical and Electronic Failures

Ships rely heavily on electrical and electronic systems for engine control, monitoring, and automation. Malfunctions or failures in these systems can disrupt engine performance. Problems with wiring, sensors, control panels, or electronic control units (ECUs) can result in engine shutdowns or loss of power.

Mechanical Component Failures

Ship engines comprise various mechanical components, such as pistons, crankshafts, valves, and bearings. Failures in these components due to material fatigue, manufacturing defects, or improper installation can lead to engine breakdowns. Regular inspections, monitoring, and timely replacement of worn-out or damaged components are essential.

Overloading and Improper Operation

Operating ship engines beyond their designed capacity or subjecting them to excessive stress, such as running at high RPMs or heavy loads for extended periods, can cause engine failures. Overloading can lead to increased wear and tear, overheating, and ultimately engine breakdowns. Proper adherence to operational guidelines and load limits is crucial.

Design or Manufacturing Defects

In some cases, ship engine failures may be attributed to design or manufacturing defects. These defects can result in systemic weaknesses, inadequate durability, or component failures. Defective engines may require recalls or legal action against the manufacturer for compensation.

Human Error

Human error, including improper maintenance practices, incorrect operational procedures, or failure to respond promptly to warning signs, can contribute to engine failures. Lack of training, experience, or negligence in adhering to proper maintenance and operational protocols can have severe consequences for engine reliability.

Ship engine failures can have significant implications, including costly repairs, delays in operations, and potential safety risks. Regular maintenance, adherence to operational guidelines, and proper training of crew members are essential for preventing engine failures and ensuring the safe and efficient operation of ships.

How Can Vessel Fires be Prevented?

Ship fires can have catastrophic consequences, endangering the lives of crew members, causing significant damage to the vessel, and posing environmental risks. Preventing ship fires requires a combination of proactive measures and adherence to safety protocols. Here are some key strategies to prevent ship fires:

Fire Safety Training

Crew members should receive comprehensive fire safety training, including fire prevention, detection, and response procedures. Training should cover the proper use of firefighting equipment, evacuation protocols, and communication during fire emergencies. Regular drills and exercises should be conducted to ensure that crew members are familiar with their roles and responsibilities in the event of a fire.

Adequate Fire Detection Systems

Ships should have effective fire detection systems, including smoke detectors, heat detectors, and flame detectors. Crew members should regularly inspect, test, and maintain these systems to ensure their proper functioning. Early detection of fires enables swift response, increasing the chances of containment and extinguishment.

Fire Suppression Systems

Ships should also have appropriate fire suppression systems, such as fire extinguishers, sprinkler systems, and fixed firefighting systems. These systems should be easily accessible, and undergo routine inspection and service. The type and capacity of fire suppression systems should be based on the vessel’s size, layout, and cargo requirements.

Proper Storage and Handling of Flammable Materials

Flammable materials, including fuels, oils, chemicals, and gases, should be stored securely in areas that comply with safety regulations. Proper labeling, segregation, and handling procedures should be followed to minimize the risk of accidental ignition or combustion. Additionally, regular inspections and maintenance of storage areas should be conducted to identify and address potential hazards.

Electrical System Safety

Electrical systems onboard ships should have a proper design. Installation and maintenance should be in compliance with safety standards. Regular inspections should occur to identify and address any electrical faults or hazards. Proper grounding, insulation, and protective measures should be implemented to reduce the risk of electrical fires.

Hot Work Permit Procedures

Hot work activities, such as welding, cutting, or grinding, should occur under strict guidelines and with appropriate permits. Areas where hot work occurs should be adequately prepared. For example, fire-resistant materials should be in place to protect surrounding surfaces. Additionally, fire watch personnel should monitor the work area during and after completion.

Regular Maintenance and Inspections

Ships should undergo routine maintenance, including inspections of electrical systems, machinery, ventilation, and fire safety equipment. Any deficiencies, damages, or malfunctions should be promptly addressed and rectified. Preventive maintenance practices can help identify potential fire hazards and ensure the ship’s overall safety.

Good Housekeeping

Maintaining clean and orderly spaces onboard the ship is crucial for fire prevention. Proper housekeeping practices should be followed, including regular removal of waste, debris, and flammable materials. Adequate storage and disposal procedures should be in place to prevent the accumulation of combustible materials.

Safety Culture and Reporting

Promoting a strong safety culture onboard the ship is essential. Supervisors should encourage crew members to report any potential fire hazards, near misses, or safety concerns. Establishing a non-punitive reporting system and conducting regular safety meetings can help foster a proactive approach to fire prevention.

Preventing ship fires requires a multi-faceted approach that includes a combination of training, equipment, maintenance, and safety protocols. By implementing these preventive measures, ship operators can significantly reduce the risk of fires and ensure the safety of the crew, vessel, and cargo.

Can Maritime Workers Seek Compensation for Vessel Fire Injuries?

Maritime workers have the right to seek compensation for fire injuries they sustain while working at sea. The specific avenues for seeking compensation will depend on the worker’s employment status and the circumstances surrounding the fire. Here are some potential sources of compensation:

  • Maintenance and Cure: Under general maritime law, maritime workers who suffer injuries on the job are entitled to “maintenance and cure” benefits. Maintenance refers to the daily living expenses (such as food and lodging) that the employer must provide to the worker during the recovery period. Cure covers the medical expenses necessary to treat the injuries resulting from the fire.
  • Jones Act Claims: Maritime workers who qualify as “seamen” under the Jones Act can file a personal injury claim against their employer if the fire injuries resulted from negligence or unseaworthiness of the vessel. To establish a successful Jones Act claim, the worker must demonstrate that their employer or a co-worker’s negligence contributed to the fire or that the vessel was not reasonably safe.
  • Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA): Non-seamen maritime workers, such as longshoremen, harbor workers, and certain dock workers, are covered under the LHWCA. This federal workers’ compensation system provides benefits for work-related injuries, including fire injuries. Injured workers can file a claim for medical expenses, rehabilitation costs, disability benefits, and lost wages.
  • Third-Party Liability: If the fire incident was caused by the negligence or wrongful actions of a third party not associated with the injured worker’s employer, the worker may have a personal injury claim against that party. For example, if a fire was due to a defective product, the victim may have a product liability claim against the manufacturer or distributor of the faulty equipment.

Kherkher Garcia Helps Maritime Workers Obtain Compensation

At Kherkher Garcia, our maritime injury attorneys have one goal – to obtain justice and maximum compensation for our clients. A sad reality in the maritime industry is that many accidents and injuries are avoidable. Human error and improper training or safety procedures contribute to the vast majority of injuries.

When this happens, maritime workers need the guidance of a skilled attorney. At Kherkher Garcia, our attorneys can evaluate the specific circumstances of the fire, determine the appropriate legal remedies, and guide workers through the claims process to pursue fair compensation.

If you have been injured in a vessel fire and want to know more about your legal rights and options, contact us today for a free case evaluation. Call us at 713-333-1030 to get started.

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Steve Kherkher

Steve Kherkher

Founding Partner and Trial Lawyer

This article was written and reviewed by Injury Trial Lawyer and Founding Firm Partner Steve Kherkher. Steve has been a practicing injury lawyer for more than 30 years. He has won $300 Million+ in Settlements and Verdicts for his clients. He is a force to be reckoned with in the courtroom and the trial lawyer you want on your side if you or a loved one have been catastrophically injured.

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