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November 05, 2009— Ottawa, Ontario

Life at sea has always been risky. But no one expects to be injured by the very equipment that's meant to save them during an emergency.

Yet for workers in the marine industry, that's exactly the case. Since 1990, accidents with lifeboats have caused hundreds of injuries and deaths, usually due to a problem with the hooks that lower the lifeboat to the ocean. And those accidents haven't happened at sea, but during lifeboat training exercises that are meant to prepare crews for a real evacuation.

A St. John's company has come up with a fresh engineering approach to the challenge of lifeboat safety. Mad Rock Marine Solutions is finding huge success with a new design for lifeboat hooks, and its founders have helped to bring about regulatory changes that will see safer hooks installed on ships around the world.

Lifeboat

The RocLoc lifeboat hook.

Science meets safety

Engineer Dean Pelley was working as a graduate student at the NRC Institute for Ocean Technology when he was asked to research the performance of lifeboats in extreme weather. He was surprised to find many accident reports related specifically to lifeboat release hooks.

"And what I quickly realized was that almost no science or engineering work had been done on lifeboats, ever," says Pelley. "They had evolved somewhat based on failed evacuations, but they hadn't really progressed much since the Titanic days."

Pelley saw an opportunity to commercialize the knowledge coming out of NRC's research. He and colleague Jason Dawe launched Mad Rock Marine Solutions in 2002, and focused their efforts on the design of lifeboat hooks.

All ships built after 1986 are required to have "on load-release" hooks, which can open even with tension on the hook, such as when a lifeboat is suspended over the water. A 2001 UK study found that the most common cause of fatal lifeboat accidents was the failure of these hooks. Most accidents occur when a hook at one end of the lifeboat opens accidentally, either due to incorrect adjustment of the equipment or human operator error.

Lifeboat

Mad Rock’s hook design is inherently stable – the weight of the lifeboat actually pulls the hook closed.

"The lifeboat hangs vertically and the hook that's left isn't designed to take that vertical load," says Pelley. "It opens too, and the lifeboat falls." A fall as little as a metre can cause injury. "But some of these lifeboats have fallen as much as 25 - 30 metres and the lifeboat actually comes apart."

A failsafe approach

While most of the industry was designing hooks to meet the regulatory specifications, Pelley and Dawe decided to take a different approach. "We said: Let's look at this based on the engineering requirements," says Pelley. "What does a hook need to do?"

They knew that the hook had to work at least once during an evacuation, but also that it would be used most often during training. "So we designed a hook that worked when it needed to work, but that you could also use for training in a safe way." They also took into account the problem of corrosion on ships, and the reality that maintenance isn't always done regularly.

The result — the RocLoc hook — is made from corrosion-resistant stainless steel and requires little maintenance. But most importantly, the hook defaults to a "closed" position.

"With the older style hooks, if you made a mistake, or there was a problem with the hooks, they tended to open on their own," says Pelley. "Our hook fails to a closed position. The more you pull on the hook, the more it actually pushes the locking cam closed. So it won't open unless you physically do something to it."

Lifeboat

A Mad Rock employee instructs a ship’s crew on how to use the lifeboat hook.

So far the company has outfitted 48 ships, with another 30 on the waiting list. Mad Rock's approach has helped to spark an industry shift towards hook designs that fail to the "closed" position, and the International Maritime Organization has changed its regulations to require that all ships replace their old hooks with new designs that incorporate this feature.

Pelley says that he's proud of "the fact that our product is making it safer for seafarers, and that we have developed something from scratch that solved a huge problem in the industry." By bringing a practical engineering approach to a serious industry issue, the company has helped to drive change that could save many lives.

A safe place to start

The inspiration for Mad Rock came out of Dean Pelley's work with NRC researcher Antonio Simoes Ré, whose research group was studying all aspects of marine evacuation systems. "The company wouldn't be here if it weren't for that group," says Pelley.

The company started its life in NRC's industrial partnership facility in St. John's, which provided mentoring, support for product testing and a place to work. Financial support from NRC-IRAP and other regional and provincial organizations helped the company to survive its early years. "It was a good environment to be in when we were developing our technology," says Pelley. "That whole support group was really important."

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada
613-991-1431
media@nrc-cnrc.gc.ca

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