SINGAPORE: A 51-year-old aircon technician fell into the sea off the east coast of Singapore during a storm while attempting to disembark from a cargo ship onto a smaller boat.
Malaysian Lee Chee Tong, who had been in the industry for more than 20 years, shouted for help but was unable to grab a life buoy that was thrown to him.
His body was found three days later by the Police Coast Guard in an advanced decomposition state and he was identified via his right thumb, a coroner’s court heard.
A coroner ruled in findings made available this week that the incident was an “unfortunate work-related death”. He suggested that the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) and the Transport Safety Investigation Bureau (TSIB) may wish to form a dedicated working group or committee to implement proposed recommendations.
Mr Lee was not wearing a life jacket at the time, and a platform that he was standing on had collapsed.
His company, Rex Marine and Engineering, had not established any safe work procedures for repairs on vessels and safe boarding of vessels, and its risk assessment did not identify measures such as rejecting the boarding of a vessel in bad weather and ensuring appropriate means of boarding, the findings read.
MOM is contemplating taking enforcement action under the Workplace Safety and Health Act against those involved, the coroner said.
The court heard that Mr Lee was on board the bulk carrier Angelic Glory, which was anchored in the sea at Eastern Special Purposes “A” Anchorage off the east coast of Singapore on Oct 23, 2019.
His company, which was in the business of aircon systems and cold rooms for the marine sector, had been subcontracted to repair a refrigeration system and an air-conditioning system on the ship.
Mr Lee had been working for the company for more than 20 years and had worked on board vessels at anchorages multiple times over the years, as well as attending the shipyard safety instruction course.
On Oct 23, 2019, he was the designated supervisor to three other technicians for the repairs on the Angelic Glory.
After being briefed on the risk assessment and having a pre-working meeting, Mr Lee and his team boarded the vessel at about 6.30am and carried out the repairs.
They completed the work and got ready to board a smaller launch boat at about 4.50pm to leave. It started to drizzle, and the boatman of the smaller vessel saw dark clouds approaching, but the workers went ahead.
A ladder was lowered from the Angelic Glory, and Mr Lee told his teammate to be careful as the waves were “too strong”. As the currents were strong, the boatman had to manoeuvre the launch boat back and forth a few times before coming into position.
When Mr Lee stepped onto the platform that bridged the two vessels and placed one foot on the launch boat while holding onto the ladder railing, there was a sudden swell that caused the bow of the launch boat to pitch down about a metre.
When the boat swung back up, it struck the underside of the platform, causing it to tilt downwards. Mr Lee fell into the sea as it began to rain heavily. MPA found that weather conditions were “squally and thundery”, with a rough sea and swells of 1m to 1.5m in wave heights.
Mr Lee shouted for help twice and struggled to stay afloat in the water. The boatman executed the man-overboard rescue, reversing the launch boat to avoid hitting Mr Lee and to make space for a life buoy to be thrown into the water.
Differing accounts state that a life buoy was thrown but was too far from him to reach, or that it landed beside Mr Lee but he was struggling and could not grab it, the findings said.
Mr Lee was swept towards the stern of the vessel by the waves, and the lifebuoy was thrown towards him again but he was already mostly submerged in the water.
His body could not be found subsequently, and the Police Coast Guard located him off the Eastern Bunkering B Anchorage three days later.
INVESTIGATIONS BY MULTIPLE AGENCIES
The police, MOM, MPA and the TSIB conducted separate investigations into the incident. Findings include that the team had forgotten their life jackets but did not go back for them, that stanchions were not installed on the platform at the time of the incident and that Mr Lee’s company did not identify safe work procedures for repairs on vessels or safe boarding.
Investigations revealed that the securing arrangement of the platform had been modified, causing securing pins to be dislodged and for the platform to flip downwards when struck by the launch boat.
The incident was mainly caused by the failure of the securing arrangement of the platform when its underside was struck by the launch boat, the court heard.
The master and crew of the vessel had failed to heed guidelines on means of access, and three items on the vessel’s checklist for gangways and accommodation ladders were not complied with – the rigging of a safety net, for rope guardrails to be pulled tight and for the platform to be secured and suitably fenced.
Mr Lee died of drowning, and there are no grounds to believe that the boatman was negligent or culpable for his failure to retrieve Mr Lee from the sea, the court heard. MPA recommended a stern written warning to be issued to him.
SUBSEQUENT ACTIONS TAKEN
After the incident, the ship owner revised its safe management system while the repair company introduced a procedure requiring everyone to wear a life jacket at all times and implemented safe work procedures for work at anchorages.
MPA in August 2020 issued a circular setting out guidelines for the safe transfer of people between vessels at anchorages, including “strong” encouragement for people to wear life jackets and for boarding arrangements to be properly rigged, the coroner’s findings read.
MPA said masters of service boats should consider weather conditions and sea states before deciding on whether to proceed with transfer of personnel at anchorages.
Coroner Prem Raj said MOM, MPA and TSIB may wish to come together in a dedicated working group or committee to implement the proposed recommendations and any that may arise in future, so as to function as a single source to better educate the marine industry.
He extended his deepest condolences to Mr Lee’s family for their tragic loss.
Mr Lee’s employer said he was a hardworking employee who seldom took medical leave, while Mr Lee’s son said his father always told the family not to worry about him, as the work in Singapore was simple and he was handling it well, the court heard.