Boat Yard Safety by Paul Esterle
Yes, I know we ran this article before. But observing boater’s practices last fall and thinking about the upcoming spring commissioning prompted me to revisit the topic of boatyard safety once again. Boatyard safety is a topic most of us don’t pay a whole lot of attention to. When we’re at the yard, we’re generally there for a purpose. Usually that purpose is working on a boat: preparing it for launch, securing it for the winter or working on a project, big or small. It’s not that any of us are deliberately careless; it’s just not something that is at the forefront of our consciousness.
I was as guilty as the rest of us. That is until the day I fell off the boat. It was an early spring weekend, when few people were in the yard. I always extended the ladder well above deck level of the sailboat I was working on to give me something to steady myself when stepping from the ladder to the deck or back. That last trip, I grabbed the top of the ladder to steady myself as I made the transition from the deck to the ladder. I must have inadvertently pushed against the top of the ladder because the next thing I knew the bottom of the ladder kicked out.
There I was, with my right foot still on the deck of the boat while my left leg dangled through the rungs of the ladder. The only thing that saved me from a nasty fall to the gravel below was the fact that I had tied the ladder to a deck winch with a bungee. That kept the ladder from falling completely away from the boat and allowing me to drop to the ground.
After a few minutes, I was able to extricate myself and get back down the ladder. No permanent harm done but I did have some painful scrapes, sprains and bruises as well as a much better appreciation for good boatyard safety practices.
Safe Ladder Usage
Ladders are one of the most common pieces of equipment around the boatyard. Extension or step, they’re everywhere. After my fall, I started paying attention to how they were being used, or rather, misused.
One of the most common errors is trying to use too short a ladder for the job. I’ve seen people balancing on the tops of step ladders trying to reach that last little spot to wax. Read the sign on the ladder that tells you not to stand or sit on the top and obey!
A common problem with extension ladders is that they are placed at too steep an angle against the boat. The best way of telling if you have the ladder sloped correctly is to stand with your arms outstretched and your feet even with the base of the ladder. Your fingertips should just touch the ladder.
I like to extend the extension ladder well above the deck level of the boat I’m getting on. This allows me to climb the ladder and step off onto the deck while still maintaining an upright posture with something to hang onto. This practice also contributed to my fall.
I still have the ladder extended as before but now I place a heavy keel block against the base of the ladder to keep it from kicking out. The other thing that minimized my injuries was the fact that I had tied the ladder to the boat at the deck level. I originally did this to keep the ladder from falling to one side or the other, leaving me stranded aboard the boat. In my case, it also kept the ladder from sliding out any farther from the boat.
I use a tall step ladder to get aboard one of my boats. I like the wide base of the ladder for better stability. Unfortunately, the top of the 12’ step ladder only reached the deck level. Using this ladder as is would violate my “too short of a ladder” advice. I added a sturdy wooden handrail to the top of the ladder to allow me a stable grip as I stepped aboard. I don’t know if it is OSHA approved, but it has worked safely for me.
I’m sanding the interior and deck of one of my boats. While I try to keep things cleaned up, dust and debris still accumulate on the deck and the cabin sole. This combination of debris, such as used sanding discs, and the dust make for a very slick surface. The dust acts as miniature ball bearings under your feet and you can easily slide. Occasionally I’m slow in getting the tarp back on ahead of a rain shower. The combination of dust and water also make for slippery footing. Your own sweat can also be dangerous, making handholds, ladder rungs and tool grips slippery. Believe me a running four inch angle grinder isn’t something you want to loose control of!
All that sanding required several things. First of all, the sanders need to be hooked to a good vacuum cleaner to help control the dust. Many marinas require this and may rent the equipment. Dust from sanding paint is extremely fine, so find a filter for your vacuum that is designed to trap those fine particles. Even so, there is usually a little dust floating around, so a good respirator should be used. I use a lot of epoxy when working on boats. The additives that are mixed with the epoxy to form various fillers or change the epoxy characteristics are usually very fine powders. Keep your mask on while mixing these.
Dust isn’t the only reason for a decent respirator. Many of the chemicals we routinely use aboard also should be used while wearing a respirator. My respirator of choice is one of the 3M units with the two replaceable cartridges. Those cartridges are available in different grades, from controlling sanding dust to protecting against VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds).
Hand in hand with proper tool use is the use of safety glasses or goggles. It doesn’t take much of a paint chip or wire from a wire wheel in a drill to ruin your eyesight. Chemical splashes from paint, epoxy or the like are also a danger. If you use polyester resin, be especially careful with the catalyst, it can be deadly to the eyes. I regularly use safety glasses for general work, then switch to safety goggles when flying particles are present. I use a full safety face shield when there is a chance of a splash hazard.
Hand protection is also important. As I mentioned above, I’m a big user of epoxy products for use on my boats. Many people can become sensitized to uncured epoxy and will break out with a rash, swelling or respiratory problems when exposed. I use a variety of protective gloves to keep these chemicals away from my skin.
Solvents, such as acetone, are also hard on the hands and I routinely use gloves when working with these products. In some cases, you may need nitrile gloves or other types of gloves to provide resistance to the solvent.
These are just a few of the safety precautions that ran through my mind as I was hanging from the side of the boat trying to get back aboard. I’ve not mentioned proper precautions for working with electrical cords or power tools. This stuff can be dangerous and one of the most dangerous aspects is failing to use common sense and common precautions. Ask me, I know.