Maritime Safety Week - Focus on Lifeboat Safety

Our Ref: HSR/2/6

Head Office Circular: NP/147/22

5th July 2022

To: The Secretary




Dear Colleague,




This year’s Maritime Safety week started yesterday.


RMT has been issuing press releases on matters of maritime safety every day this week and will be doing so again tomorrow on the anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster. We have also been active on social media via Twitter and will continue to do so for the rest of the week.


On day one, our focus was on lifeboat safety.


RMT will be meeting with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) on 19th July to continue our discussions on lifeboat safety.


RMT’s key high-level items are:

•           Maintenance and safety equipment installation and maintenance

•           Drills- frequency, conditions, location on which drill takes place

•           Personnel onboard during lifeboat lowering in drills- how many onboard and at what stage should they embark the lifeboat?


RMT has presented the key findings of our survey on lifeboat safety at the Industry Lifeboat Group (ILG). The ILG was established by the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) along with non-governmental organisations and some flag States to look at improvements in lifeboat and other survival craft safety.

The ILG has the objective of developing proposals to International Maritime Organisation (IMO) that address both immediate and longer-term lifeboat safety issues. Group members consider that the opportunity of co-ordinating their continuing work in support of this agenda item will facilitate a more effective contribution to discussion of this matter at IMO.

The questions RMT asked of our members were:

•           Are you asked to descent in the lifeboat during drills?

•           If so, have you ever refused?

•           If not, what is your employer’s policy re: drills?

•           What are your fears, if any, about being lowered in the lifeboat during drills?

•           Are you aware of any regular maintenance undertaken on the lifeboats?

•           Have you noticed any potential areas which need attention in the lifeboats?

•           Has this been reported to the employer?

•           Have you been involved in and/or witnessed any accidents involving lifeboat drills?

•           What do you view as a reasonable way of undertaking lifeboat drills safely?

The responses from members overall showed a variety of standards of implementation of the requirements on board along with concern expressed by members regarding crew safety during lifeboat drills and a lack of confidence in using the equipment.

The key findings of our survey on lifeboat safety were presented to the ILG and prompted the meetings between the MCA and RMT. The findings were also shared with Bahamas, Cyprus and the International Transport Workers Federation.

ILG members understood the concerns highlighted by the RMT and were in support of finding a solution to give seafarers more confidence in launching and testing lifeboats.


Seafarers are dying needlessly in lifeboat accidents when maritime legislation doesn’t actually require vessels to be manned during drills.

There has been a legislative change which means that it is not necessary for crew to be onboard when lifeboats are tested.

SOLAS regulation III/ requires each lifeboat to be launched at least once every three months during an abandon ship drill, and manoeuvred in the water by its assigned operating crew. However, the regulation, whilst requiring each lifeboat to be manoeuvred in the water by its assigned operating crew, does not actually require that crew to be on board when the lifeboat is launched.

Many of the lifeboat fatalities have occurred during launch of the lifeboats, often due to problems with the hooks.

In 2009 the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee, agreed that the assigned operating crew should not be required to be on board lifeboats during launching, unless the Master, within the authority conferred to him/her by paragraph 5.5 of the ISM Code, considers it necessary, taking into account all safety aspects.

This seems to have been missed by some ship operators and is still included in some Shipboard/ Safety Management Systems. To prevent any further loss of life in this way we will continue to raising awareness of the fact that seafarers are not required to be in the lifeboat when launching during drills.

Since 1981 there have been 419 deaths involving lifeboats, 346 serious injuries and 116 minor injuries.


It is a fact that many seafarers have been, and continue to be, killed or seriously injured in accidents involving the failure of lifeboat on-load release mechanisms.

On-load release mechanisms have killed many seafarers, and may continue to kill many more. The fitting of on-load release systems on lifeboats became mandatory for all vessels constructed after 1 July 1986. This was as a result of several high-profile incidents involving loss of life during lifeboat evacuations utilising lifeboats equipped with fixed hook releases (“off-load” release). The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) therefore stipulated that lifeboats be fitted with a central control release system that ensured that both lower fall blocks were released simultaneously, even if under load. However, this does mean that the hooks can be disengaged at any point during the launching/recovery process, either as a result of human error or mechanical defect. In the UK, the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) produced a study listing 125 accidents and incidents involving lifeboats. The most serious of these accidents, mostly involving fatalities, were caused as a result of problems with the on-load release gear. According to MAIB data, in a 10-year period, 12 seafarers were killed and 87 injured. It is likely that the true figures are significantly higher, as many accidents and incidents may go unreported.

On-load release mechanisms were never intended to release a lifeboat that was not in the water. Most on-load release systems are designed as unstable - they rely upon the release system to maintain the hooks in the closed position, rather than to open them – in other words if the hooks fail they open rather than remain closed. Lack of proper maintenance, human error and even the motion of the lifeboat during a launch or recovery, can cause the system to release, particularly if key components have become worn or have been replaced with non-standard parts. The on-load release system will have at least two safety features built in:

A safety pin prevents the release handle being operated; a positive and deliberate action is required to remove the safety pin and operate the release handle

There are no routine circumstances which require the ship’s crew to override the hydrostatic interlock. Releasing a lifeboat that is not in the water – even from heights of less than one metre – may cause death or serious injury and result in damage to the lifeboat structure and possible capsize and/or sinking of the lifeboat. 

The risk of an accident from inadvertent release of the lifeboat on-load hooks is unacceptably high. Fall preventer devices should be used to control the risk and stay safe.

RMT has a Lifeboat Working Group; could any member interested in participating in this Group please contact RMT Health and Safety Officer Jonathan Havard -


Please bring the contents of this circular to the attention of relevant members. 


Yours sincerely



Michael Lynch

General Secretary