Proper housekeeping and safe ship working practices ensure a comfortable working environment and are critical for staying safe on the open water. Establishing and following a set of health and safety guidelines can keep ships functioning at an optimal level.

In this article, we will cover everything you need to know about maintaining a clean, safe working environment on your cargo ship, including:

Why a Safety Management System Is Important

In the 1980s, there were growing concerns over safety and management standards in the maritime shipping industry. In response to these concerns, a committee dedicated to promoting safe working practices on board ships worked to develop a set of guidelines and objectives known as the International Safety Management (ISM) Code.

The ISM requires all cargo ships to establish a safety management system (SMS), document it and keep a copy on board at all times. According to the ISM, every cargo ship safety code and SMS should have:

  • A safety and environmental protection policy.
  • Listed procedures for safe ship operations according to legislation and regulations.
  • Defined levels of authority and communication lines between personnel.
  • A process for reporting and analyzing accidents or areas of concern.

An effective SMS summarizes important information and procedures in one place to guide overall ship safety and compliance. You can further your safety knowledge by taking a course through MITAGS to equip you and your crew members to understand and prepare for safe cargo ship practices. If you have specific questions about how to implement a successful SMS strategy on your vessel, the representatives at MITAGS can help.

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mariner performing safety and housekeeping tasks

Housekeeping Methods for an Engine Room

Your engine room is one of the most important parts of your ship — and often the most hazardous. With so much machinery, piping and fuel in a single space, it is critical that you practice smart engine room housekeeping methods, including:

  • Preventing engine room fires: Fire safety precautions on cargo ships include covering and protecting all points of exhaust and ductwork, repairing fuel leaks immediately, replacing any contaminated or damaged insulation, testing all thermometers and pressure gauges regularly and having clearly marked fire-rated exit doors. Never allow smoking in the engine room, and avoid leaving flammable materials in open containers. Install and regularly test a high-level fire detection system. In addition, practice emergency fire procedures so each person knows what to do and where to go in the event of a fire.
  • Maintaining personnel safety: To protect your ship’s crew and ensure your own personal safety on board a ship, there are a few actions you can take. Make sure there are no loose bottom plates in the engine room, as they are a tripping hazard. In addition, regularly clean your ladders and floor plates to remove oily residue that could cause slippage. Avoid touching steam pipes, especially with exposed skin. When in the engine room, all crew should wear safety-rated, dry clothing. No crew member should ever operate machinery outside of their expertise, and all machines should be used according to manufacturer guidelines.
  • Preventing engine or machinery failures: Scheduling cargo ship maintenance inspections can help prevent engine and machine failures and address concerns before they grow into larger issues. If concerns arise, have them addressed as soon as possible. Remember to replace important parts, including gauges, as they age.

Safety in the Wheelhouse

A clean and well-organized wheelhouse is essential for safe vessel operation. To avoid potentially hazardous situations, put the following tips into practice:

  • Keep lines of vision clear: While in the wheelhouse, check that all necessary areas are visible, including the surrounding water and the work deck. Eliminate any objects that may obstruct the view from the wheelhouse, including items on the deck. Avoid tinting wheelhouse windows — instead, use an anti-glare screen or removable visor. Have wheelhouse windows cleaned each time you are in port and have a plan to eliminate salt build-up while on the water if necessary. Always follow environmental regulations when cleaning windows.
  • Inspect tools and equipment: Implement a regular equipment inspection plan, including visual and performance inspections each time you prepare to leave port. Test that all whistles, horns and signals are fully operational and have any broken or malfunctioning tools repaired or replaced.
  • Test fire equipment: There should be at least one fire alarm signal and extinguishing system in or near the wheelhouse. Ensure these features work before leaving port. You should also perform regular inspections of the electrical cabling, so you know if any lines begin to fray or break.
  • Practice good hygiene: Hygiene is an essential component of wheelhouse safety. Create a wheelhouse cleaning schedule where the crew disinfects and sanitizes all knobs, handles, chairs, phones and equipment to prevent the spread of germs. Sweep or vacuum the floor regularly. Take proper precautions to seal and rat-proof the wheelhouse to prevent the spread of disease and keep sensitive cables safe.

mariner inspecting ship operations

Maintaining Safe Galley and Dining Area Conditions

Nourishing meals are the fuel to help you and the crew make it through a full day of operations. If food is prepared incorrectly, crew members can become seriously ill. If galley workers are not trained on proper galley safety, injuries can also occur. The galley, like all kitchens, requires a specific set of worker hygiene and attire standards.

Galley Hygiene Standards

All galley workers and crew members should uphold high hygiene standards while in the galley. Foodborne illness is a frequent cause of sickness aboard cargo ships. In severe cases, these illnesses can be transported to land and infect others or cause your entire crew to postpone operations until recovered.

Proper galley hygiene includes:

  • Washing your hands when entering the galley or after using the restroom and drying them with disposable towels.
  • Eliminating all spoiled or contaminated food promptly.
  • Clearly labeling food products and storing them at the appropriate temperatures.
  • Cleaning and disinfecting the galley and utensils each day.
  • Removing jewelry, including rings and watches, before working with food.
  • Treating and covering all open wounds.
  • Wearing gloves when working with food and changing them as they become contaminated.
  • Refraining from smoking in the galley.
  • Using an approved grease trap to catch all grease before discharging or treating kitchen waste.

To promote these standards, implement regular galley inspections.

Galley Worker Attire

Galley workers should wear appropriate attire to prevent injuries like burns or cuts. This attire includes:

  • Closed-toe, slip-resistant shoes
  • Aprons
  • Disposable gloves
  • Hairnets and beard nets

Clothes should always be clean and laundered, including aprons. All hair, including facial hair, should be neatly groomed and secured away from the food.

The Dining Area

On many vessels, the mess area is where the crew spends much of their free time, whether they’re enjoying a meal or socializing. There are several steps you can take to keep this area as safe and clean as possible:

  • Wash and disinfect tables before and after meals or social gatherings.
  • Sweep and mop the mess area floor regularly.
  • Use non-corrosive, sealed garbage cans for all non-food trash.
  • Dispose of food waste properly and separately from other garbage or recycling.
  • Consider using slip-resistant placemats on tables to minimize accidents.

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Tips for Keeping Living Quarters Clean

Each member of the crew is responsible for keeping their living area clean and orderly. Dirty living quarters are unpleasant for other crew members, and they can be dangerous in the event of a fire.

In addition to cleaning up after oneself, maintaining clean living quarters includes:

  • Eliminating or minimizing food consumed outside the galley and mess areas.
  • Removing dirty clothes and shoes before entering living quarters.
  • Regularly laundering all clothes and bed linens.
  • Storing life jackets and gear in their corresponding areas.
  • Providing easy access to sealed garbage cans and cleaning supplies.

To keep living quarters safe and free of potential fire hazards, make sure each crew member has access to a fire extinguishing system and that you test all nearby fire alarms for performance and strength of sound. Avoid smoking in living quarters and other confined spaces. If using an ashtray, it should have an attached lid to prevent spillage. Should a member of the crew become sick with a contagious illness, take extra sanitary precautions, and temporarily relocate that crew member if possible.

How to Secure Gas Canisters at Sea

Oxygen and acetylene gas are standard cargo ship fixtures and may be used for onboard welding and gas cutting. You must understand the safest ways to handle these gases, including how to secure them while on the water. If tanks are left unsecured, they can leak. These leaks can be toxic to crew members and may cause a fire or pressure explosion. Because these gases are highly flammable, smoking and open flames should never be permitted inside the storage area.

Best practices for storing gas canisters on board include the following:

  • Ensure all tanks are clearly marked and stored by color — blue canisters for oxygen and maroon canisters for acetylene.
  • Secure gas canisters in a well-ventilated, weather-safe and permanent area of the cargo ship. This area should be exclusively for gas canisters and not a place for additional storage.
  • Install storage racks and grates to keep canisters in a stable, upright position while in transit.
  • Give acetylene canisters at least thirty minutes to rest before opening, especially if they were stored horizontally.

maritime waste storage system

Proper Bilge Management Area Maintenance

The bilge area of a ship collects excess water and oil in the engine room. This area serves an important role in keeping harmful waste from polluting the outside water. When water becomes polluted, it can harm ecosystems and sea life and lead to unsafe drinking water in bodies of fresh water. A dirty, unmaintained bilge area can also cause many problems for your ship, including failed inspections, sick personnel or hazardous working conditions.

To manage your bilge area and ensure cargo ship worker safety, follow these practices:

  • Keep the bilge area as free of oil as possible. One way to do this is to ensure your engine room is free of leaks that could contaminate the bilge.
  • Paint your bilge area a light color so you can see oil spills and other contamination easily.
  • Use drip trays to catch leaks until they can be inspected and repaired.
  • Avoid disposing chemicals in the bilge management area. This could include mop water, cleaning substances, soot or food waste.
  • Regularly inspect all bilge lines for signs of damage or premature wear.
  • Stay up-to-date on current standards for bilge area hygiene and pollution in case your cargo ship is inspected by port control.

Recommendations for Maritime Vessels During a Health Crisis

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released recommendations and new regulations for all vessels during the coronavirus pandemic. Review these guidelines with crew members, so everyone can do their part to prevent the spread of a virus on the ship and be prepared to handle any future health crisis situations.

Take Preventive Action

It’s essential that all crew members are aware of the symptoms of COVID-19, as well as how to minimize their risk of contracting the virus. Vessels should deny boarding of any crew member experiencing one or more symptoms, as well as anyone who has come into contact with an infected person or recently traveled to a region with known exposure. Whenever possible, crew members should avoid working on a vessel if they are feeling any symptoms, even if they are not typical of a virus. The crew should also try to maintain safe distances from one another.

While on board, encourage all crew members to maintain good hygiene, including frequent and thorough hand-washing. If a crew member becomes ill or displays symptoms while at sea, the individual should self-isolate in a single-occupancy cabin with the door closed. Immediately alert any onboard medical professionals and prepare an illness report, per CDC guidelines.

If a crew member is experiencing symptoms of a serious and contagious illness while at sea, make plans to reach land as soon as possible and advise all remaining crew members to:

  • Social distance
  • Wear personal protective equipment
  • Closely monitor their own health
  • Report any emerging symptoms

To help combat onboard illness, all vessels should have a suitable quantity of medical supplies, hand soap, hand sanitizer, disinfectant cleaner, personal protective equipment and durable, leak-proof containers.

Tips for Cleaning and Sterilizing Vessels

In addition to standard cleaning and housekeeping practices, vessels should take extra precautions during a health crisis, including:

  • Cleaning commonly touched items — such as rails, countertops, door handles, tables and light switches — more frequently, or after each use.
  • Disinfecting all areas of the ship promptly and safely if a crew member exhibits symptoms of an illness.
  • Wearing disposable personal protective equipment when disinfecting ship areas and avoid touching your face.
  • Eliminating all contaminated objects immediately by securing them in a tied trash bag and placing inside a spill-proof container.
  • Washing your hands thoroughly with soap and water for a minimum of 20 seconds after cleaning.

mariner aboard cargo ship

Contact MITAGS to Learn More About Maritime Safety

Effective ship housekeeping and safety may make the difference between successfully completing daily work and facing costly stalls in operation. Properly maintaining the engine room and bilge management area and promoting good hygiene practices in the ship galley, living quarters, dining areas and work areas play a key role in these procedures.

Once you implement these strategies on your ship, remember to track your progress. You can note which methods have led to improvement and identify strategies that still need fine-tuning. Encourage open communication between all members of the crew and ship management to promote accountability.

If you’re interested in learning more about maritime safety and safe working practice for ships, MITAGS can help. MITAGS is a non-profit vocational training institution for both novice and experienced maritime professionals. In addition to maritime safety education, we also offer Mate to Master and Maritime Apprenticeship programs for those looking to further their career. For more information, contact a MITAGS representative today.