Engineer’s Angle: Rush of repairs courts disaster

Mar 6, 2020 by JD Anson

Engineer’s Angle: JD Anson

Many times during repairs, engineers are rushed to complete the task and get the system running again. Unfortunately, this means that often safety systems and protections that were removed to facilitate the repair are left undone with the expectation that they would be reinstalled at the next opportune time. 

These items can be as simple as a physical guard to keep fingers attached to hands, or a complex arrangement of sensors protecting against unseen hazards such as electrical shock. While done with good intentions, leaving these protections undone removes a designed safety from the system. This could cause injury or death to an unsuspecting crew mate.

Engineering spaces are inherently dangerous areas with many parts that are hazardous because of heat, shock hazard or movement. Pumps that are not close-coupled require physical guards over the coupling mechanisms to prevent fingers, loose clothing or hair from becoming entangled in the rotating parts. Though small, their mass creates quite a hazard when running at the high speed that they do. 

I once met a former engineer with an unnaturally perfect set of pearly white teeth. Unfortunately for him, they were not his, but the result of his tie becoming caught in the coupling of a fuel transfer pump. He said the tie fell as he was leaning over the pump and was grabbed by the spider coupling. It instantly pulled him face-first into the pump motor and shattered all the front teeth out of his mouth. After this meeting, I always insisted on clip-on ties for my dress uniforms. 

Likewise, belt drives are required to have guard cages over the entire belt. Air compressors have large powerful motors driving spoked pulleys to create high air pressure. The kinetic energy of these pulleys could wrench off a finger or two without even slowing for a moment. Air compressors also create high heat at the output and should have covers there to avoid burns.

Physical guards are also required to be present around engines. While this may seem a bit silly while tied to the dock, in rough weather it is easy to lose balance and fall onto a hot engine surface. Those stainless grab bars around main engines are not just for looks. They protect from burns as well as falls into the shaft couplings and other rotating parts.

Personal protection is just as vital to crew safety. Ensuring that safety glasses and proper ear protection are stationed at each entrance will help guard against eye and ear damage. Engine rooms can generate noise levels of more than 120db(A). Since IMO regulations require mandatory hearing protection at any exposure over 85 db(A), good quality ear protection is paramount. Remember, only seconds of exposure at 120 decibels can cause permanent hearing loss.

Electrical equipment has its own special requirements. One can’t detect an issue without specialized equipment. Since mere milliamps of stray current can be deadly, monitoring for electrical faults is especially critical. Ensuring solid connections and dry environments goes a long way to ensuring safety for users. Ground fault monitors should be checked daily. This can be an early indication of a problem, protecting both crew and the boat.

Even though we may be conscientious of doing our repairs correctly, a previous engineer’s ability or diligence is an unknown. Smart practice is to spend some time on a new boat checking for hazards. Besides the obvious missing guards or loose mounts, finding and rectifying something as simple as a bonding wire that was not reconnected could literally save your life. A shorted component can energize a housing, and if there is not a good ground, the circuit breaker will not trip until something makes this circuit complete. A quick check for continuity from each electrical load to the ship’s ground takes but a few moments and can make all the difference.

Becoming more diligent in completing tasks correctly and awareness of potential dangers can make for safer working environments on board. 

If there isn’t time to do it right, there isn’t time to do it again.

JD Anson has more than 20 years of experience as a chief engineer on megayachts. He is currently project manager at Fine Line Marine Electric ( in Fort Lauderdale. Comments on this column are welcome below.