Pilot ladders are subject to frequent use in the maritime industry, employed whenever someone needs to embark or disembark from a vessel at sea. Here, Erik Mooij – Group Senior HSES Manager, LR – explores the key challenges with pilot ladders, and how crews can ensure their safe operation at all times.

A fall from a pilot ladder is a serious matter. From a height of nine meters, a person will hit the surface at a speed approaching 50km per hour; dangerous whether they fall into the water or onto the deck of the transfer boat waiting at the bottom of the pilot ladder. Naturally, everything possible needs to be done in order to ensure that this doesn’t happen, and it’s with this in mind that we need to re-examine the safe deployment of pilot ladders.

Pilot ladders are a staple of the maritime industry and are used every day on vessels around the world. Unlike many other aspects of the ships in operation today, the design of these ladders has remained relatively static over the past few decades, with no major changes to either their form or function. In spite of this, around 20% of pilot ladder deployments fail to meet the basic safety standards1 outlined by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and International Maritime Pilots Association (IMPA).

This figure is, of course, far too high and presents a serious concern for those responsible for the crew and pilot wellbeing. While a pilot can use their stop authority if they believe a ladder to be unsafe, it can be difficult to detect problems from sea level – even with an expert eye. In addition, if a pilot does decline to embark due to an issue with a pilot ladder, this has an onward implication in terms of delays.

Clearly, it is in everyone’s best interests to see that every time a pilot ladder is used, it is done so safely and compliantly. Without a novel technical solution to this challenge, we instead need to focus on three fundamental safety principles.

1. Proper inspection and maintenance regimes

The nature of the way in which pilot ladders are used means that it isn’t necessarily sensible to put arbitrary inspection and maintenance timelines in place. Some ladders may be subject to significant usage on an almost everyday basis, and others may not. Weather conditions, storage arrangements, and a variety of other factors will influence the durability of a pilot ladder as well.

That said, including pilot ladders in wider inspection and maintenance schedules is undoubtedly beneficial. Ensuring that these assets are checked and maintained on a regular basis will help to identify any flaws or issues before they undermine their safety.

2. In-depth crew training

All too often, “training” a crew member on how to use a pilot ladder can actually mean showing them a poster portraying their safe application and expecting them to take that information in. This clearly isn’t sufficient, and crew members need a real and practical understanding of pilot ladder safety.

As a bare minimum, crew members should be trained to check that:

The pilot ladder is clean, well-maintained, and free from unacceptable wear and tear.

  • Spreaders are in good condition and equally spaced.
  • Steps are horizontal, unpainted, and clean.
  • Any retrieval line is above the lowest spreader and leading forward.
  • The ladder is at the right height, above the waterline, and easy to step on to.
  • The ladder is level with the hull and secured to a strong point on deck rather than the railing.
  • Handhold stanchions are present and secured.
  • There is sufficient illumination, as well as a lifebuoy and heaving line.

Special attention should also be paid to accommodation ladders, which must be used in conjunction with pilot ladders where the climb would otherwise be higher than nine metres. In this scenario, the platform must be at least five metres above the water, the pilot ladder must extend two metres above the platform, all ladders must be independently secured to the ship’s side, the pilot ladder must be 1.5 meters above the platform of the accomdation ladder, and the slope of the accommodation ladder must sit at a maximum of 45° (or 55° if the installation was before July 2012).

3. Robust crew management systems

As well as knowing how to deploy a pilot ladder and ensure that it is safe to use, crew members themselves must also be protected when setting one up. A good example here is the use of fall arrests, devices that should be employed as standard when a crew member is securing either a pilot ladder or accommodation ladder to the vessel.

In most cases, this is as simple as creating a work instruction around the deployment of a pilot ladder and ensuring that procedures are strictly adhered to.

Like many other features of a vessel, pilot ladders are used so frequently that we can often forget the risks that their improper operation can carry. Nonetheless, while there are many incorrect ways to set up a pilot ladder, there is only one safe one – and that’s something that we all need to remember.

1. ‘Let’s keep our marine pilots safe’ – British Ports Association, 12th July 2019