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Safety Rules For The Boatyard

We all know it's important to be safe on the water, but there are also some important rules to follow when working in the boatyard.

Man in jeans, sweatshirt and ball cap, standing by boat on a jackstand and using am electric buffer on hull

A ladder and scaffolding combination help to make this hull waxing job both safer and more efficient.

While boaters are typically a cautious lot when it comes to safety on the water, many let their guard down once they're back ashore. This reduction in situational awareness is bad enough when doing something as mundane as driving to the grocery store, but it can be downright deadly when dealing with the ever-changing environment of a typical boatyard.

Here are a few tips for navigating the treacherous shoal waters of boatyard projects and reaching the end of your yard period with all body parts attached and in good working order.

Safety Basics

Accidents wait to claim the careless in every corner of a boatyard, from loose scaffolding and falling ladders to slippery floors and exposure to toxic chemicals, harmful dusts, and even electrocution. While the potential hazards are real and plentiful, the vast majority are also avoidable by combining a proactive attitude toward safety with a healthy dose of common sense.

  • Wear appropriate personal safety equipment such as safety glasses, goggles or face shields; earplugs; respirators; and dust masks. This also includes wearing suitable footwear (no sandals, or open-toed or canvas shoes) and proper apparel (no loose-fitting clothes that could become snagged while climbing or entangled in power tools). Those with long hair should tie it back or secure it for the same reason.
  • Remove watches, rings, and other jewelry (particularly during electrical work) and of course never work when ill, taking strong medication, fatigued, while consuming alcohol (or other such substances), or while smoking.
  • Clean storage and work areas at the end of each day and stow or organize project materials and tools to prevent trip hazards. Properly dispose of trash, oily rags, and other such items that could ignite under the right conditions.
  • The best yards have electrical outlets at each work area. A single, larger gauge drop cord will always provide better service than multiple, smaller gauge drop cords — particularly for longer distances.
  • Boatyard outlets should be three-pronged and protected by GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupt).
  • Keep a weather eye out for safety hazards and plan for “what if” scenarios, such as keeping a hose or bucket of fresh water handy to rinse accidental chemical splashes off skin or to flush eyes of sanding dust.
  • Make sure your work area is properly lighted if working after dark, and keep a flashlight handy for those nocturnal forays into the bowels of the boatyard where trip hazards and head-banging dangers lurk in every shadow.
  • Know the location of the nearest fire extinguisher and first-aid kit. It's also a good idea to have a list of emergency and after-hours contact numbers for boatyard staff.

5 Essential Tool Safety Rules

Most every hazard involving the use of tools can be prevented by following five basic safety rules:

  1. Keep all tools in good condition by performing regular maintenance.
  1. Use the right tool for the job.
  1. Examine each tool for damage before use.
  1. Operate according to the manufacturer's instructions.
  1. Use proper protective equipment.

General Tool Safety

Modern power tools offer more power and adaptability than ever before. However, with enhanced tool performance comes additional responsibility, particularly with regard to safety. General power tool safety tips include the following:

  • Don't use power tools in damp environments or explosive atmospheres.
  • Verify no electrical circuits, water pipes, fuel lines, or other items or systems are hidden behind bulkheads or other such areas prior to drilling or sawing.
  • Disconnect tools when not in use, before servicing, and when changing accessories such as blades, bits, and cutters.
  • Never remove or defeat guards, barriers, or other safety-related devices.
  • Repair or remove damaged power tools from use immediately. The most serious danger here is the possibility of electrocution. However, even a minor shock can lead to serious injury, such as the case of an unexpected spark or shock causing the user to fall from a ladder or other elevated work surface. Hand tools (screwdrivers, wrenches, hammers) are simpler than their power-driven cousins but can still do some serious damage to careless operators. The greatest hazards posed by hand tools result from misuse and improper maintenance.
  • Inspect all tools for damage prior to use (chisels with mushroomed heads or wooden-handled tools with splinters or cracks).
  • Always use the right tool for the job (e.g., no using a screwdriver as a chisel, or a knife as a screwdriver).

Ladder Safety

Few boaters use ladders or scaffolding on a regular basis. However, while in the yard, you can expect to use one or the other on an almost daily basis. Falls from ladders and scaffolding rank high on the list of boatyard accidents, with potential injuries ranging from sprains to death. Here's how to avoid becoming a statistic.

Ladder leaning against side of sailboat

Not only does this ladder not extend high enough above the gunwale, it's not properly secured to the vessel, and the unused lanyard is now a trip hazard.

The two most commonly used ladders in the boatyard are stepladders (A-frame) and straight or extension ladders. Both have specific safety requirements (which we'll discuss individually below) but when using any ladder consider the following:

  • Read the manufacturer's instructions, which contain both safety guidelines, as well as the ladder's weight and height limits.
  • Inspect the ladder before use, ensuring all parts are intact and that rungs are clean and free of mud or grease. (Wearing shoes with nonskid soles will also help prevent slips.)
  • Never climb a shaky ladder and ALWAYS secure them in place prior to use. (Have someone hold the ladder firmly until they are tied or secured in place.)
  • Ensure all ladder feet are on a firm, level surface (no boards or blocks).
  • Use a ladder tall enough for the job. Many accidents occur from using a ladder that's too short.
Illustration showing specifications for the proper height of a ladder and boat
  • Avoid carrying tools or equipment while climbing a ladder. Instead, use a tool belt, bucket and rope, or have someone hand the equipment to you.
  • Face the ladder when climbing up and down, keeping your body centered between both side rails.
  • Keep your weight evenly distributed and don't overextend your reach. A good general rule is to never let your belt buckle past the ladder sides or top of the ladder.
  • When using a stepladder, always ensure spreaders (the devices that hold a stepladder in the open position) are completely open and locked prior to use. Avoid stepping or sitting on the top two steps, and never climb the back of the ladder. It's also a bad idea to lean a stepladder against a hull or wall to use as a straight ladder.
  • With extension ladders, select the proper length. Ensure the ladder extends at least 3 feet above the upper support area (such as the gunwale or railing when used for vessel access) and that the horizontal distance between the bottom or foot of the ladder and the support against which it's placed is equal to one-fourth the height of the ladder at the top point of support. (See illustration at right.)


The time spent in setting up scaffolding for major hull projects is easily justified in terms of safety and productivity. Most modern yards provide metal uprights for supporting planks or scaffolding catwalks (typically aluminum frames with plywood overlays). While these are safer than planks resting on wooden sawhorses, there are still safety requirements that need to be addressed prior to use:

Man wearing jeans, blue t-shirt and white ball cap standing on scaffolding and cleaning boat hull withscrubbing pad

Scaffolding is preferred over ladders when tackling larger hull projects.

  • Make sure the scaffolding is assembled according to the manufacturer's instructions, to include guardrail systems along all open sides (whenever possible) and ends of platforms and a safe, unobstructed means of access.
  • Ensure the scaffolding is plumb, square, and level. If equipped with wheels, make sure all are locked (to prevent movement) prior to use.
  • Tie or otherwise secure catwalks and planks to prevent sliding.
  • Check catwalks for damaged plywood and planks for saw cuts, fungi, dents, large knots, and splits, any of which could cause weakness and failure.
  • Make sure planks extend over the end frame at least 10 inches, but no more than 12 (to reduce chances of the unwary walking into them).
  • Keep scaffolding clean and free of debris, and use ramps or rope-and-pulley arrangements to lift heavy objects from ground level.
  • Don't use makeshift steps or ladders on scaffolding platforms to increase working height.
  • Never use scaffolding or ladders during storms or high-wind conditions.


The yard is responsible for blocking and securing your vessel when hauled, as well as shifting jackstands as required to facilitate boat projects and maintenance, such as bottom painting. Here's what you should look for:

Man wear yellow work pants and a white t-shirt securing a jackstand under the hull of a large boat

The boatyard is responsible for blocking and securing your vessel when hauled. (Photo: Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore)

  • Boat owners are prohibited from adjusting or relocating stands but should check them routinely for issues and bring any problems sighted to the yard's attention.
  • Jackstands should be chained together under the boat to ensure they don't spread apart.
  • To avoid potential problems never tie anything to your jackstands. This is especially true for boat covers, which can yank stands free during high winds.
  • Each jackstand should have a wooden pad beneath each leg, however, over time, even those with properly installed pads can start to settle due to freeze/thaw cycles or unstable ground. Possible cures for settling include installing larger pads and/or adding additional stands.
  • Stands can also loosen due to vibrations caused by high winds or even ongoing boat work, such as heavy sanding or attempts to remove a stubborn propeller. As such, it's a good idea to check the stability of each stand on a regular basis.
  • When inspecting your stands, take a moment to inspect the stands of the boats around you as well — especially if bad weather is on the way. Preventing the boat beside you from toppling counts as both community service and self-preservation.

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Frank Lanier

Contributing Editor, BoatUS Magazine

Capt. Frank Lanier is a SAMS-accredited marine surveyor with over 40 years of experience in the marine and diving industries. He’s an author, public speaker, and multiple award-winning journalist whose articles on boat maintenance, repair, and seamanship appear regularly in numerous marine publications worldwide. Contact him via his YouTube channel “Everything Boats with Capt. Frank Lanier” or at