Discussion of Pipeline Accidents Leads to Resolve to Standardize Signage
Panel presenting "Improving Dredge Safety" at WEDA
A discussion of a tragic accident sparked a resolve by the Western Dredging Association (WEDA) Safety Commission members to standardize pipeline signage in the industry. Boaters consistently ignore signage around dredges. There are six deaths per 100,000 registered boats in the United States, according to Julie Hile, WEDA Safety Commission chair. An outboard motor hitting a floating pipe can be ripped from the brackets and thrown forward into the boat, seriously injuring or even killing the occupants.
Randall Steed, president and chief operating officer of Ross Island Sand & Gravel, described the measures his company had taken to ensure the safety of boaters around dredging projects, and a horrific accident that occurred despite all their precautions.
Steed was a panelist in the “Improving Dredge Safety” session at the recent WEDA Dredging Expo in Vancouver, B.C.
Ross Island S&G does maintenance projects in California on the Sacramento deep water ship channel and the Stockton deep water ship channel near the confluence of the Sacrament and San Joaquin Rivers. The area is 80 kilometers (50 miles) inland from the San Francisco Basin. Besides ship traffic, upwards of two million people a year use the waterways for fishing and recreational boating.
“Boaters are unaware of dredging,” Steed said. It goes on only several months a year, California doesn’t require boater training, people don’t know what a day shape is, and they don’t read local notes to mariners. Steed fights an ongoing battle to find ways to alert boaters to the stationary dredging equipment in the channel, which can include a polyethylene pipeline crossing the channel. Filled with slurry, the pipe sinks to the bottom, but when the dredge is pumping water, it rises to the surface.
Steed received authorization from five county sheriff’s departments to designate a five mph speed zone around his dredging areas, indicated by a prominent sign on a barge. He also sent crew members to law enforcement training and acquired licenses for them to operate chase boats to intercept vessels that are ignoring the speed limit and signs. This measure added two crew members per shift at $80 per hour.
When a boat pulling two water skiers headed toward the dredging equipment one evening, it did not slow, and when the chase boat tried to head it off, the skiers dropped off. The chase boat positioned itself between the ski boat and the pipeline, but the boat went around it and hit the pipe at 30 mph. In an instant, the outboard motor was hurled into the boat, effectively severing the hand of the driver’s 16-year-old son, and seriously injuring the driver, who was inebriated.
The dredge crew performed emergency first aid and called the sheriff and emergency services. The two were rushed to hospitals – the son by helicopter and the father by ambulance. The son’s hand was re-attached, but he will never have full use of it, and a promising career as a baseball pitcher was ended.
“Add alcohol, and smart turns to stupid real quick,” Steed said, adding that his crew was traumatized for a long time after the incident.
In the lawsuit that resulted, the driver of the boat was found to be 90 percent at fault. He was amazed that the damage was so severe when he was going “only” 30 mph.
Two representatives of Mercury Marine, which manufactures outboard motors, addressed the attendees at the safety session and described the company’s reaction to this incident and another similar incident where a 10-year-old child was killed.
There are 750 deaths per year in recreational boating, said Peter Chisholm, Mercury product safety manager. He described the engineering work the company did to understand the effects on an outboard motor hitting floating plastic pipe. He showed a slow motion video of a controlled test that revealed the pipe collapsing completely then springing back, doubling the effect of the speed and turning 30 mph to 60 mph in terms of the effect on the swivel bracket holding the motor onto the boat.
Mercury’s question was “what are the best practices to help consumers?” The company designed a swivel bracket that contains a piston that absorbs the rotational energy of the impact and keeps the engine from tearing loose in the case of elision with a pipe or other stationary object.
But the answer isn’t to make the equipment stronger and stronger, because the forces of a collision will always be transferred somewhere, and once the equipment is too strong to fail, the force will go completely to the people involved. The answer is to address the safety practices of the dredging industry, and to work toward education of the public.
Randy Steed said that despite this incident, the chase boat does make a difference. He has also taken to going to the boat launches along the rivers, introducing himself to people who are putting boats in the water, and explaining the danger around the dredging project. He also contacts fishing clubs with the same information.
In the discussion that followed, dredging contractors and others shared their experiences and raised questions such as why the authorities don’t patrol the rivers. Even though the local sheriffs don’t have the resources to patrol, is that something we should be accepting, asked one participant?
Matt Binsfeld remarked that safety cones, speed limits and other markings are the same all over the country for road construction. “Can WEDA put out a best practices standard for pipeline marking for the boating industry?” he asked.
Scott Douglas, project manager with the New Jersey Department of Transportation said, “We would like to be a part of this, and other owners would, also.”
Stan Ekren concluded by saying that this standard would be of tremendous value. It will need education and training, but this is a serious issue, he said.
Robert Ramsdell of GLDD and Margaret Davis of Hile Group described the dredging industry’s safety journey, which started in 1996, and continues to this day in its goal of achieving zero incidents and injuries in the workplace and also in the personal lives of all in the industry.
Safety was also the topic of the plenary session on the second day of the conference. It was facilitated by Julie Hile, WEDA Safety Commission chair. Participants were representatives of dredging contractors, who described the safety programs in their companies.