Improper Oil Filter Cleaning Leads To Second Degree Burns


The UK P&I CLUB published a detailed report on minimizing the risk of seafarers suffering burns at sea.

Burns – a life-changing and threatening injury

Burns can be some of the most painful and dangerous of personal injuries that may be inflicted both at work and in domestic situations. The potential sources and causes of burn injuries can be varied and may range from a painful but minor inconvenience to life-changing injury and death.

What is the risk of acquiring burns onboard the ship?

In the majority of cases, burn casualties reported to the Club were able to make a full recovery after receiving the appropriate first aid or professional medical treatment ashore. However, some were not so fortunate, with seafarers suffering appalling physical pain, disfigurement, amputations, and loss of life.

Burn injuries are bad news whenever and wherever they occur, but when they happen at sea, remote from shore medical facilities, the consequences may become dangerously

A serious burn will require prompt professional medical attention and special facilities that are unlikely to be available on a merchant ship navigating in mid-ocean. For this reason, it is particularly important that seafarers are fully aware of the risks presented by hot (and cold) appliances and systems as well as the necessary safety precautions to take, both on and off duty.

What is a burn?

A burn is a damage to the skin tissue which causes the affected skin cells to die resulting in swelling, blistering, redness, charring, and tissue loss.

The most common causes of burn injuries to crew onboard ships may be summarised as follows:


  • Steam and hot fluid burns
  • Contact with heated surfaces
  • Exposure to hot or burning solids, liquid or gas
  • Chemical burns
  • Electrical burns
  • Cold burns

Classification of burns

The severity of a burn is graded according to the depth of the injury through the skin. The skin has an outer layer (epidermis) and a deep layer (dermis).

The latter contains the sweat glands, hair follicles, and nerves relaying sensation and pain to the skin.

  • First degree burns affect only the outer skin layer, causing redness, mild swelling, tenderness, and pain.
  • Second-degree burns extend into the deeper skin layer (the dermis):
    • Superficial, second degree burns to cause deep reddening, blister formation, considerable swelling, and weeping of fluid.
    • Deep second degree burns may not be easy to distinguish from third-degree burns immediately after the injury. Pain may be severe because of damage to the nerve endings.
  • Third-degree burns involve the whole thickness of the skin and may extend to the underlying fat, muscle, and bone. The skin may be charred, black or dark brown, leathery, or white according to the cause of the burn. Pain may be absent due to the destruction of the nerve endings.

Treatment for burns

The treatment of burns will depend upon the cause of the burn, how deep it is, and how much of the body it covers.

Ship’s masters need to be fully aware of the potentially life-threatening complications that may present in a casualty due to the loss of the protective skin layer, including infection, hypothermia, dehydration, and shock, even in the case of burns of a relatively minor bodily extent. It is therefore of vital importance that burns injuries are quickly assessed and professional medical advice obtained as soon as possible, even if they initially appear to be trivial.

The apparent seriousness of burn injuries can be easily misjudged by laymen, with
casualties in the early stages presenting as being alert or not even in great pain due to the effects of shock or the destruction of nerve endings. This can engender complacency
and delays in seeking appropriate medical attention with sometimes tragic consequences.

The high risk of burn injuries leading to serious complications means that in the event of a crew burn incident, the master, ship manager, or telemedicine service will often require or
recommend that the vessel deviates to the nearest port or place where medical facilities are available to administer appropriate treatment. This is a commonly recurring feature of
burn incidents which will inevitably result in an escalation in
claim costs.

Preventative safety precautions

Steam and hot fluid burns and scalds

This is perhaps the most common type of burn injury to which ship crews are exposed. The Club’s claims experience indicates that the largest proportion of steam and hot fluid burns occur in the machinery spaces although other high-risk environments include the galley, mess rooms, and areas where high-temperature tank cleaning or cargo operations are being performed.

Engine room incidents

Accidents often occur in the engine room when steam and hot oil systems are opened up for maintenance or inspection. Typically, unwary engine room crew will dismantle a valve, pipe flange, or another machinery component in the mistaken belief that the system has been properly isolated, de-pressurized and drained, with the result that they become exposed to steam or hot fluid ejected from the system.

This is frequently attributable to an absence of or inadequate pre-work planning, where the risks of steam or fluid discharge are not properly assessed and required safety precautions not put in place.

Machinery spaces

Not surprisingly, hot water and steam injuries in machinery spaces commonly arise in connection with work on boilers and their associated systems, including hot wells. All heated oil systems are a potential hazard, particularly bearing in mind that fuel oil service temperatures may typically be in the region of 125°C to 140°C. In this respect, work associated with fuel pumps, fuel filters, fuel settling, and service tanks and waste oil tanks regularly feature in burn accident reports.

Operation and maintenance

Unfortunately, there is a tendency to view work relating to the operation and maintenance of these systems as routine and not deserving of a proper risk assessment or pre-work
toolbox talk. Raising hazard awareness through onboard training, familiarisation and the implementation of Permit to Work procedures for tasks of this nature could go a long way
to preventing many avoidable injuries. This would include the use of appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as heat resistant gloves or gauntlets, aprons, and full-face visors.

Deck incidents

Burn injuries occasionally occur on deck during cargo tank cleaning or steaming operations due to poor working practices or improperly made connections. Particular care should be
taken when personnel is required to enter cargo tanks to assist with the stripping of heated vegetable oils.

The crew should also be aware that pressurized hydraulic oil in mooring winches and other machinery may reach very high temperatures. Galleys and catering facilities are an obviously high-risk area for burn injuries, containing a wide range of heated appliances and receptacles for hot or boiling water and very high temperature cooking oils.

Case Study – Incident of cleaning oil filters

This case study highlights the necessary safety precautions that need to be taken in advance while cleaning oil filters onboard a vessel.

Summary of the incident

While the vessel was at anchor, the chief engineer instructed the duty crew to clean the duplex filters for the fuel oil booster pumps.

The diesel generator was changed over from Heavy Fuel Oil (HFO) to Diesel Oil (DO), the HFO heater was shut off and the feed and booster pump stopped.

The third engineer was said to have closed the valves before and after the filters and then slackened off the air vent plug to relieve the pressure in the filter unit. As the third engineer commenced removing the filter cover, hot fuel oil was ejected from the casing, causing extensive first and second degree burns to his arms, legs, and feet. The engineer was quickly transferred ashore and hospitalized.

Actions recommended

The actions reported to have been taken to isolate the FO filters and relieve pressure were consistent with standard practice and yet there remained enough fuel and pressure in
the system to cause the discharge of hot oil from the opened filter casing. This shows that it should never be blindly assumed that the system is 100% safe when being opened up – what if a drain or vent is blocked or a valve is not closing properly?

Safety recommendations

When working on steam or hot fluid systems, it is good practice to ensure that valves that have been closed to isolate the system are locked or tied shut and notices attached to the effect that they are not to be opened.

Other measures to de-pressurize, drain, and cool the system should also be positively identified and recorded by the work team. In all cases, the manufacturer’s instructions for operation and maintenance should be strictly adhered to

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Source: UK P&I CLUB


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