Health and Safety on Board a Commercial Ship

Whether it carries passengers, goods or both, a commercial ship has all manner of health and safety issues. Once at sea, a ship is a self-contained environment. It has basic hazards such as Slips, Trips and Falls, and complex dangers posed by fuel, electricity and combustible materials.

Dangerous Goods

Commercial ships carry all sorts of goods, some of which are dangerous and pose health and safety risks.

The International Maritime Dangerous Goods (IMDG) code covers these. The code has guidance for the safe transportation of dangerous goods at sea.

In the UK, the code has the force of law thanks to the Merchant Shipping (Dangerous Goods and Marine Pollutant) Regulations 1990. Containers with dangerous goods must display orange labels with IMDG coding.


The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) is the UK’s authority on all matters related to carrying dangerous goods at sea. The MCA also has a wider remit to continuously improve safety at sea.

In this role, the MCA issues regular health and safety alerts. It bases the alerts on actual incidents at sea. These include falls, galley burns, high-speed loading dangers and fatal accidents.

The MCA also incorporates health and safety in training courses for commercial seafarers. These courses have international approval.


The HSE (Health and Safety Executive) has complementary training courses. Ship owners are not exempt from the general HSE requirement to ensure staff have training in First Aid, Fire Prevention and Manual Handling.

These three areas of health and safety can cover a lot of ground. But as the HSE and MCA make clear, there are particular hazards that a ship’s crew faces at sea.


Electricity and water, for example, don’t mix. And yet a commercial ship must have an electrical system so that it can function.

A recent incident highlights the dangers. While washing down the galley, a cook saw electrical wires resting on the deck. The ends of the wires had tape over them so the cook assumed they weren’t live. He picked them up so he could wash the deck beneath them and received an electric shock.

A contractor had left the wires when removing a piece of machinery. The contractor had isolated the electricity supply but someone switched it back on once the ship was at sea. Fortunately, the cook survived the experience.


Commercial ships sail round the clock. A member of the crew must be on the bridge at all times, maintaining a watch. In one incident, the chief officer was on the midnight to 6 a.m. watch but he fell asleep. He woke up when the ship ran aground on the Scottish coast.

Problems with tiredness or absence on the bridge cause an average of six groundings a year in UK waters.


The engines on commercial ships can be huge and complex. They can also become dirty. A seaman who was concerned about a messy engine cleaned it while it was running. He severely damaged his hand on the teeth of the flywheel.

Long List

These examples are just three from a long list. Health and safety on commercial ships is important for individuals, for the transportation of goods, and for the avoidance of major accidents. The HSE and MCA provide support and advice to help prevent any such incidents from happening.

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