Combustible materials left unprotected near hot work led to a fire on a passenger vessel, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said. The fire resulted in $1.5 million in damages to the vessel.
The passenger vessel was moored and out of service when a fire broke out. The vessel operated daytime and dinner jazz cruises daily on the Mississippi River, departing and returning from the French Quarter in New Orleans. No pollution or injuries were reported.
The vessel had been undergoing renovations since January 2021 for an extensive overhaul, with a goal to return to service in 2023. On the day of the fire, contractors were removing the vessel’s main electrical panel to install a replacement. After work was completed for the day, the vessel deckhand serving as the security watchstander saw smoke and flames in the engine room.
The New Orleans Fire Department extinguished the fire. Most fire damage was contained within the generator space that housed the panel, with minor heat damage to the engine room and minor smoke damage to the external passenger decks located directly above the fire.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives determined the fire originated near the deck along the forward bulkhead, adjacent to where the hot work was performed.
NTSB investigators saw photos taken prior to the fire that showed cardboard boxes, wooden shelves and other combustibles were in the storage areas near where the hot work was performed.
NTSB investigators found neither the vessel owner nor the hot work contractor had a written safety policy or procedures in place for employees to review and follow when preparing for and conducting hot work on the vessel. Fire safety plans are required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations.
The chief engineer of the vessel told investigators that while he was on board the vessel on the day of the fire, he witnessed the hot work in the generator space. He said he had the hot work contractor personnel and vessel crewmembers place a piece of sheet metal on the side of the port generator.
The port generator was located about 3 feet from the hot work area, and the chief engineer was concerned that sparks from the cutting would hit it. Although the chief engineer was aware of the combustible material near the hot work, he did not raise any concerns or have them moved from the generator space.
The vessel owner’s director of operations informed investigators that the company always relied on the contractor conducting hot work on their vessels to have a hot work policy in place and enforce it.
Investigators found that the hot work contractor had no written safety policy or procedure in place for the employees to review and follow when preparing for and conducting hot work on board a vessel. All directions regarding the safe preparation of the area for hot work were passed verbally to the employees by the project superintendent.
The project superintendent told investigators that he evaluated the generator space before the hot work and determined that it was safe based on his 40 years of work experience conducting hot work. In addition, the project superintendent, the employee conducting the hot work, and the employee who served as the fire watch told investigators that they were unaware of the OSHA regulations concerning the risk of having combustible material near hot work
The NTSB determined the probable cause of the fire was the failure of contractor and vessel personnel to identify and then either remove or adequately protect combustible materials near hot work.
- The NTSB has investigated multiple fires following the completion of hot work within a space that was determined to be caused by a smouldering fire.
- A smouldering fire is formed when combustible material ignites, but the combustion proceeds slowly and steadily on the material’s surface with little heat and no smoke or flame.
- A smouldering fire is not easily detected, and depending upon its surroundings, it can last for hours after the initial ignition and can quickly grow into a flaming fire with no warning.
- A smouldering fire can long outlast the time a fire watch observes an area following hot work. Therefore, it is critical to evaluate work areas for fire hazards and ensure that combustibles are relocated or protected with flame-proofed covers/curtains or otherwise shielded with sheet metal. In addition, crew members involved in hot work should be trained to identify hazards such as combustibles and to take action to remove or protect them from hot work.
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