Have your yard safety procedures kept pace with modern handling?

Over the last 40 years there has been a quiet revolution in the manner in which most Yards and Marina transport and store vessels.  Whilst there remain a small number of Yards still using traditional marine railways, tractor/bomb trolley combinations, affording owners the choice of either a mud berth or inside or outside storage in a draughty shed, ever more options are now presented as to how and where boats are to be stored in the off season, and with those options, a bewildering variety of specialist vehicles have been introduced to achieve the task.

The changing face of technology

Accordingly beginning with the introduction of the proprietary boat hoists in the early 70s, the luck Boat Yard/Marina Operator with money to spend now faces a bewildering choice of “big boys toys” to achieve this, ranging from the towed trailer units through to the remote submersible slipway transporters and, very much now of the moment, the counter balanced forklift transporters, able to lift a sizeable vessel up from a basin at low water, and then install it in racking several stories in the air.

Costing many thousands of pounds when new, these specialist boat transportation devices represent a significant financial investment, but with the costs of a lift-out for even a modest sized vessel now running into four figures, there can be no doubt that a competent Yard will make a good return on that investment, provided always that regard is had to ensuring that the machinery contemplated is suitable to the site, and the purchase is part of a properly researched and funded re-planning of the premises so to maximise the efficiency and economies of scale, and consequent increase in profits, that can flow from such investment.  Apart from stating the obvious, there is little practical benefit to a small Yard specialising in deep keeled sailing yachts, trading in a trusty hoist or crane to acquire an exotic self-propelled transporter, but in a world where, economic survival resolves around getting the best “bang for your buck” there has never been such a need to ensure that every part of the Yard or Marina is operated to best economic advantage, and, just as with housing, that perforce means getting as many on to the site as possible, having regard to safety and access.

In that regard, there can be no doubt that the evolution of open end design transporters, crab steering and four corner steering and hydraulic lifts have immeasurably improved the situation, enabling loads to be moved precisely, and often in awkward spaces which would otherwise have been deemed inaccessible or impractical.

New methods, new opportunities, new risks

The obvious and most significant indication of changing times is the steady increase in boat stacking, and whereas this was initially largely confined to ribs and runabouts, stored in open exposed racking, if we presume that (as with most other things) we ultimately emulate the American Model, we can reasonably expect that larger covered (and indeed even heated) stacking will become the norm, and involving ever larger motor boats.

All these developments come at some cost, and it is an inevitable fact of life that the most complex a procedure you adopt, the greater the prospect and significance of its failure.  There can be no doubt that there has for some considerable period of time been a curious myopia regarding cranes and other yard plant.  As in so many other areas of legislation, Yards dedicated to pleasure craft have been able to enjoy a largely unregulated  existence.  Whereas commercial cranes are subject to wide ranging detailed legislation providing for their inspection, maintenance, and the licensing of persons operating them to an exhaustive extent, boat hoists were, from the start, viewed as something other than a mobile crane, and as a consequence were largely exempt from such regulation.  Consequently, even now most, hoists are only inspected pursuant to their Insurer’s requirements, and insofar as there is no acceptable universally accepted safety requirements relating to the hoist itself, the extent of servicing and repair is ultimately a combination of the requirements of insurers, and the  conscious of the individual operator.  The only statutory obligations being that of slings, ropes and shackles, not the hoist itself.

Whilst there is no doubt that sensible conscientious operators will scrupulously maintain and service their machinery, there will always be a few operators inclined to “cut corners” and that is a factor which any business, contemplating the purchase of a secondhand hoist, should carefully take into account.  Simply put, whilst Insurers may not insist, as part of the policy of insurance, that strict repair and inspection obligations are observed, it can be reasonably anticipated that they will not adopt such a relaxed attitude to the acceptance of claims arising from breakages or breakdown, particularly if – god forbid – this results in loss of life or serious personal injury to operators or bystanders.  There have been a number of incidents involving old hoists already, and with many of the earlier ones now getting beyond economic repair, this is likely to be a growing problem.

Are your employees properly trained?

It is not just the machinery itself, as there is again a lack of clear applicable statutory obligation placed upon the operators to ensure that drivers are properly trained in the wide range of operations that these new machines can perform.  Unlike normal crane operators who are required to undertake crane detailed training and obtain formal crane licences, operators of hoists and other specialist yacht transportation machinery are only required to obtain a certificate of competence in relation to the use of the one specific machine they habitually operate.  Such Certificate of Competence does not require formal training in the more general skill of loading, or other wider skills which can then be put into practice in the operation of other machinery.  Absent a driver accordingly obtaining separate specific assessments on each of an operator’s various machines, their employers end up with a rigid demarcation between machinery and staff, or turning a blind eye to staff operating unfamiliar machinery, with again a significant risk and consequence for all concerned in the event of accidents.

Securing your yard

It is not just the machinery and the operators that give cause for concern.  As indicated in Part I of this Article, the operation of these machines invariably acts as a magnet for children and onlookers.  Sold in part on the basis that they enable yards to forego the unnecessary expense of additional banksmen or yard hands to manage ropes, many of these machines are operated by one person, who cannot realistically be expected to watch the load, operate the machinery and keep an eye out for kamikaze members of the public.  It is not a coincidence that most American Boat Stack Yards now fence off the stacking and manoeuvring area from the general public, and employ automatic lowering barriers to physically prevent them entering the working area when the forklifts are in operation.  Even now, there are some South Coast premises where it is seemingly perfectly acceptable for members of the public to wonder about unhindered within meters of such operations.  So far there have been no reports of any incidents occurring, but in an environment where some unscrupulous operators have taken advantage of the laxness of regulation to carry out DIY modifications to some forklifts to enhance their lifting capacity beyond that recommended by manufacturers, the industry needs to keep a close eye on this developing area, to preserve what has, hitherto at least, been a good safety record for the industry.

Safeguarding your business

Nobody welcomes the unwelcome restrictions of legislation, and with a number of specialist organisations that are now able to provide training expert maintenance support, even for some of the more elderly lifts, it would certainly make sense for insurers to insist upon having sight of maintenance records and an independent survey on a regular basis, which could in turn be reflected in discounted premiums to operators.  Such regular maintenance and inspection would also greatly enhance the certainty of outcome in the event of any claim.  Moreover, the creation and adoption of an industry wide code of practice on at least the establishment of a universal training course on lifting and loading practice to provide operators with a general grounding on broad principals, accompanied thereafter with individual assessments on each machine would be a sensible step forward. This is particularly so if it could be undertaken with some form of industry recognised certificate of competence, so enabling future employers to avoid having to duplicate training procedures where possible.

In conclusion, adopting a policy of recognising the specific and unique skills that operators are now developing, and recognising that like the machinery itself, such skills require regular maintenance and review, is the best way of ensuring that the industry continues to benefit from the present “light loads” placed upon it.  Conversely, failing to recognise these challenges will invariably have the reverse effect.

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