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Falling Overboard


Personal Flotation Devices

If the deck of a barge or work platform is not equipped with an OSHA-compliant railing system, employees walking or working on deck must wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket or buoyant work vest, also called a life preserver or personal flotation device (PFD). These PFDs should be fully buckled, snapped, or zipped whenever there is a hazard of falling into the water, regardless of the size of the barge.

While a PFD is not required to be worn while an employee is inside an enclosed cab or equipment compartment on a barge, each employee should have a PFD accessible to them at all times. This safety precaution will allow employees the opportunity to don a PFD in a reasonable amount of time during an emergency (i.e., vessel sinking, fire, etc.).

U.S. Coast Guard Regulations for Uninspected Vessels

uninspected vessels

Life preservers and other lifesaving equipment requirements include:

  • An approved and readily available PFD is required to be on board the vessel for each individual on board. An immersion/exposure suit is considered to be an acceptable substitute for a PFD. All lifesaving equipment designed to be worn is required to be readily available and in serviceable condition.
  • Each vessel 26 feet or longer must have at least one approved ring life buoy which is immediately available. All lifesaving equipment designed to be thrown into the water is required to be immediately available and in serviceable condition.
  • An approved commercial hybrid PFD is acceptable if it is:
    • worn when the vessel is underway and the intended wearer is not within an enclosed space
    • labeled for use on uninspected commercial vessels
    • used as marked and in accordance with the owner’s manual
  • An approved light is required for all PFDs and immersion/exposure suits. Also, all PFDs must have approved retro-reflective material installed.

Regular Maintenance and Inspection

regular maintenance

Barges should be inspected by employers on a regular basis and as necessary. This will prevent problems related to missing equipment, hazardous working surface conditions, and mechanical failures that could contribute to falls overboard. For example, inspections should check for missing or damaged PFDs, missing lifelines, and burned-out lights.

Safety Precautions

There are several controls that may help prevent employees from falling overboard. Examples include marking the edge of the deck with contrasting paint or, if practical, installing guardrails or handrails.

Job Hazard Analysis to Prevent Overboard Incidents

overboard incidents

To reduce the risks of overboard incidents and drowning, employers and employees can conduct a joint job hazard analysis to identify conditions that may contribute to overboard incidents. Appropriate control measures and training can be implemented to reduce the hazards associated with falling overboard.

For example, if the separation between a barge and the dock or another vessel is more than 12 inches, a gangway or ladder must be used. Additionally, it is important to look for warning signs such as employee fatigue, complacency, and lack of concentration. Be sure to resolve these issues before an overboard incident occurs. Employers also may consider hiring a professional safety engineer to evaluate hazards and possible controls.

Man Overboard Rescue Procedures

MOB Procedures - NIOSH

It is critical to have clear procedures in place in case someone falls overboard. Man-overboard procedures should incorporate the use of stand-by boats, life rings with appropriate length of rope (90 feet minimum), and ladders that extend three feet below and above the water surface. In a case where an employee falls overboard, they will need assistance to get back on board. This must be accomplished quickly, particularly if the water is frigid, the person is not wearing a life jacket, is tangled in a line or caught in a current.

Crews should practice man overboard drills regularly. Additionally, in regions such as Alaska, where employees are at a greater risk of hypothermia, additional precautions (e.g., use of immersion suits) should be considered when there is a chance of falling overboard.

For More Information About Preventing Overboard Incidents, see "The American Waterways Operators." Fall Overboard Prevention Best Practices. March 2001.

Accident Summary

An employee was standing on a barge with a coworker, waiting for a personnel basket to land on the barge. He was holding a small sheet of plywood. He stepped back, stumbled on a board, and fell over the side of the barge into 12 feet of water. He was not wearing a life vest. Rescue attempts by his coworkers with a life ring failed and he drowned.



Before beginning this quiz, we highly recommend you review the module material. This quiz is designed to allow you to self-check your comprehension of the module content, but only focuses on key concepts and ideas.

Read each question carefully. Select the best answer, even if more than one answer seems possible. When done, click on the "Get Quiz Answers" button. If you do not answer all the questions, you will receive an error message.

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1. What is the requirement on a barge if the deck or work platform is not equipped with an OSHA-compliant railing system?

2. How many personal flotation devices (PFD) are required to be readily available on a vessel if there are 6 employees working on board?

3. Each vessel _____ must have at least one approved ring life buoy which is immediately available.

4. To help prevent falls overboard, a gangway or ladder must be used if the separation between a barge and the dock or another vessel is more than _____.

5. Which of the following should be incorporated into man-overboard rescue procedures?

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