July, 2012 – A fatal fall, a fatal flaw? By Andrew Guest

After a Chief Engineer died when he fell into the sea from a pilot ladder on an anchored ship, accident investigators found existing health problems may have been unknown to his employers. The 61-year-old seafarer had been attempting to board the bulk carrier after a 7.5-hour flight, a five-hour delay in airport immigration and a 1.5-hour journey by taxi and service launch. The trip from airport to dockside was also interrupted by visits to two pharmacies so the Chief Engineer could inject himself with insulin. Not only was he suffering from diabetes, but also hypertension and a kidney problem, conditions which meant he had to take 11 different medicines for the rest of his life. Yet three months before the fatal accident last year he had been passed as medically fit, with no “previous illnesses” or “present medication” being recorded on the medical certificate. Shortly after beginning to climb the nine-metre pilot ladder, he was seen to stop, retreat and then lose his grip. Despite the efforts of a launch attendant and two crew members who all jumped into the sea and despite attempts at cardiopulmonary resuscitation on the launch, the Chief Engineer was pronounced dead in hospital two hours after the accident. The autopsy revealed “severe coronary artery disease evidenced by previous myocardial infarction”, but while the direct cause of death appeared to be drowning it could not be determined whether this was the result of a heart attack while climbing the ladder or accidental loss of grip. The accident investigation report by the Hong Kong marine department suggested the Chief Engineer, tired after the long journey and affected by the insulin injection, may have over-estimated his ability to climb the ladder. Pride, perhaps, came before his fall and dissuaded him from requesting an easier way of boarding the ship. The investigators also pointed up the discrepancy between the clean bill of health given shortly before his death and a report three years earlier noting the need for lifelong medication. If the doctor who issued the “fit to work” certificate had been aware of the previous history, the report said, he may have acted differently. The Chief Engineer may then not have died in the way he did.