A federal investigation revealed that a fire that caused $1.5 million in damages to a New Orleans passenger vessel was caused by combustible materials left unprotected near hot work.
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators found that the vessel’s operator and the contractor hired to perform the work didn’t have hot work policies, which led to the fire.
Fire extinguishing system offline during overhaul
The passenger vessel Natchez – which operated daytime and dinner jazz cruises on the Mississippi River – had been moored and out of service since January 2021 while undergoing renovations and an extensive overhaul.
On May 3, 2022, contractors from Dixie Marine were on the vessel to remove its main electrical panel and install a replacement.
The fixed carbon dioxide fire extinguishing system for the engine room and its generator space were taken out of operation during the overhaul to prevent accidental discharge. There were no fire detection systems on board the Natchez, nor were they required.
At about 8:30 a.m., the project superintendent from Dixie Marine evaluated the generator space to determine if it was safe for hot work, including:
- checking the environment for flammable vapors
- looking for oil on the deck, and
- ensuring there were no combustible materials immediately next to the hot work area.
Fire watch maintained during cutting process
Once the space was determined safe for hot work, Dixie Marine employees used an acetylene torch to cut the panel’s metal framing so it could be removed. As one worker was cutting with the acetylene torch, the other served as the fire watch and had a bucket of water, charged garden hose and fire extinguisher at the ready in case a fire started.
While the hot work was underway, the chief engineer had two Natchez crewmembers place a piece of sheet metal along the side of the port generator, about 3 feet from the hot work at the electrical panel, so that the sparks from the acetylene torch cutting wouldn’t damage it.
The hot work was completed by 3:45 p.m. Workers cleaned up the area and collected and stored their tools while monitoring for fires as the cuts cooled down.
No signs of smoke until it was too late
Dixie Marine employees began to depart the vessel at 4:30 p.m., with the project supervisor departing at 3:46 p.m. None of them reported any unusual concentrations of smoke within the generator space before they left for the day.
While the hot work was being performed on the port side of the engine room, another contractor was installing fuel, lube oil and water lines for a new diesel generator on the starboard side of the vessel. The deckhand serving as security for the Natchez checked in with that contractor employee at around 6 p.m. with neither of them noting any smoke in the room. However, the contractor employee said he could smell an odor he associated with hot work that seemed to linger.
At 7:45 p.m., the deckhand was in the captain’s salon when he saw smoke passing by the window. When he left the room to investigate, he saw a big puff of smoke coming from the main deck at the vessel’s aft.
No injuries, most damage occurred in engine room
The deckhand moved down the gangway and along the dock toward the vessel’s stern to investigate the source of the smoke. He saw small flames that were growing and expanding inside the open starboard-side engine room doors.
From his cell phone, he immediately called 911 before calling the captain and additional company personnel to inform them of the fire.
The New Orleans Fire Department extinguished the fire. Most fire damage was contained within the generator space that housed the panel, with minor heat damage to the engine room and minor smoke damage to the external passenger decks located directly above the fire.
No injuries were reported and there were about $1.5 million in damages.
No one thought to move combustible materials in storage room
An investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives determined the fire originated near the deck along the forward bulkhead, adjacent to where the hot work was performed.
NTSB investigators saw photos taken prior to the fire that showed cardboard boxes, wooden shelves and other combustibles that were in the storage area about 3 feet from where the hot work was performed.
According to OSHA regulations, all combustible material closer than 35 feet to the hot work in either the horizontal or vertical direction that cannot be removed had to be protected with flameproofed covers or otherwise shielded with metal or asbestos guards or curtains. This task was not performed over two known areas of combustibles.
The NTSB determined the probable cause of the fire was the failure of contractor and vessel personnel to identify and then either remove or adequately protect these combustible materials that were stored near where the hot work was taking place.
Owner, contractor lacked fire safety plans
Investigators also found that Dixie Marine and the owner of the Natchez didn’t have written safety policies or procedures in place regarding hot work on the vessel. Fire safety plans are required by OSHA regulations.
The vessel owner’s director of operations told investigators that his company always relied on the contractor conducting hot work on their vessels to have a hot work policy in place and enforce it.
NTSB investigators found Dixie Marine’s directions regarding safety preparation for hot work were passed verbally to employees by the project superintendent. The project superintendent told investigators his evaluations of the generator space on the Natchez were based on his 40 years of experience conducting hot work.
The Dixie Marine superintendent, the employee conducting the hot work and the employee who served as the fire watch told investigators they were unaware of the OSHA regulations concerning the risk of having combustible material closer than 35 feet from hot work.
With the investigation’s findings in mind, here are four tips to remember regarding hot work:
1. Have a fire safety plan
Fire safety plans are required by OSHA. They’re meant to identify significant fire hazards such as those present when conducting hot work.
Having a fire safety plan in place and following the plan as instructed reduces risk of fire from hot work.
While the Dixie Marine employees conducted a safety evaluation, had a dedicated fire watch and placed a piece of sheet metal to protect an area near the hot work, they failed to identify the risk from the combustible materials in the nearby storage room.
If there had been a fire safety plan, these employees would’ve known to take steps to mitigate the risk from the combustible materials.
2. Don’t forget about the dangers of smoldering fires
The NTSB report mentioned that the board has investigated multiple fires following the completion of hot work that were determined to be caused by a smoldering fire.
A smoldering fire is formed when combustible material ignites, but the combustion proceeds slowly on the material’s surface with little heat and no smoke or flame. Fires like this are not easily detected and can last for hours after the initial ignition. They can quickly grow into a flaming fire with no warning.
Smoldering fires “can long outlast the time a fire watch observes an area following hot work.” That means it’s critical to evaluate work areas for fire hazards and ensure combustibles are relocated or protected with flameproofed covers or otherwise shielded with sheet metal.
3. Make sure employees are properly trained
Safety professionals know employees who are expected to fight fires need to be properly trained.
Not only do they need to know how to fight a fire if one occurs, but they also need to be trained to identify hazards, including combustibles, and how to address them to prevent a fire from breaking out.
4. Don’t be afraid to ask about a contractor’s fire safety plans
If it’s a contractor doing the hot work, don’t be afraid to ask them for the details of their fire safety plan.
In the Natchez incident, if any of the representatives of the vessel’s owner had asked the Dixie Marine workers about the details of their fire safety plan, they may have realized the contractor didn’t actually have one.
Instead, the vessel’s owner assumed Dixie Marine had one with the end result being $1.5 million in damages to the Natchez. Since there were no injuries, it could have been much worse.
The point is, the owner had a right to ask. Its employees and property shared the same risk as the contractor’s employees, after all.