The U.S. Coast Guard has issued an alert to towboat operators about safety hazards associated with retractable pilothouses. These specialized hydraulic systems are sometimes used on towing vessels designed for low air draft restrictions.
Retractable pilothouses give towboat operators on waterways with fixed bridges the ability to lower the house and pass underneath, then raise the house to get a clearer view over their barge tows. While useful, when a pilothouse is being lowered, it presents a crushing hazard to personnel below. Some retractable pilothouses may also be operated in an “emergency mode” that increases the rate of descent and provides less time for workers to recognize the situation and get clear of the danger zone.
At present, there is no explicit requirement for the hydraulics systems operating these retractable pilothouses to be fitted with fail-safe features. Absent a fail-safe device, the failure of the hydraulic cylinder or other system component may not provide enough time for a crew member to recognize the hazard, exit the danger zone and avoid a catastrophe. Some retractable pilothouses may also lack any alarms that would warn of emergency mode operation, increasing the risk to personnel.
Retractable pilothouses are not specifically addressed in Subchapter M regulations governing towing vessels, but the Coast Guard notes that 46 CFR 140.505(b) has a catch-all clause for equipment safety. This section of 46 CFR requires that “all vessel equipment is required to be used in accordance with manufacturer’s recommended practice and in a manner that minimizes risk of injury or death.” Failure to comply with either of these requirements – manufacturer’s recommendations or in a manner to minimize risk of injury – is a failure to comply with the regulation, according to the USCG.
The Coast Guard strongly recommends that towing vessel operators who use retractable pilothouse towboats should take the following safety measures:
Ensure pilothouses are installed with mechanisms capable of returning the pilothouse to a fail-safe locked condition in case of a failure or malfunction;
Ensure the pilothouses are equipped to sound an audible and visual alarm during all modes of pilothouse hydraulic movement;
Instruct operators to confirm personnel are clear of the danger zone before moving the pilothouse;
Instruct all personnel to never position themselves under the retractable pilothouse, even temporarily;
Clearly mark and place physical barriers around the perimeter of the pilothouse danger zone and discourage unauthorized personnel movement under the pilothouse;
Incorporate the potential dangers, audible and visual alarms, and safety considerations about pilothouse hydraulics into the SMS; and
Ensure new crew members receive proper safety training and that all personnel receive annual refresher training.
An unspecified marine casualty led to the creation and issuance of the alert.