Photo courtesy of Bull Sworn Surveyors S.L.
A serious problem
Regrettably, the answer seems to be “very little”. If anything, increased and increasing commercial pressure within the shipping industry means that companies and individuals in these companies are continually required to provide the best possible service, in the shortest time available and at the lowest cost possible. This is not to say that any or all of these objectives are, by definition, wrong or dangerous. It is, however, undeniable that cutting costs is often the easiest to achieve of these three objectives and it is sometimes the case that the greatest and possibly disproportionate emphasis is placed on the cost factor.
As mentioned in the 2002 article, it is natural for shipowners, operating in a very competitive environment, to wish to keep their operating costs to a minimum. Thus many owners will crew their ships with no more than the minimum number of people required by the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping Convention (STCW). This is perfectly legal and they are quite entitled to do so. Understandably, very few owners will, voluntarily, place themselves at what they would see as a commercial disadvantage by employing more crew than they are legally obligated to do.
Unfortunately, evidence collected in recent years by many organisations inside and outside the industry in relation to fatigue-related casualties suggests that the problem remains a serious one. Despite all the attention and publicity the problem is not going away. Indeed, with the growth in world trade and consequent expected increase in the number, size and value of ships, it is a major concern that not only are fatigue-related casualties going to be with us for the foreseeable future, but also that they are likely to increase.
Bridge Watchkeeping Safety Study
The report contains recommendations to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), the agency responsible for implementing the UK government’s maritime safety policy throughout the UK, to take the findings of the report to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) with a view to reviewing the guidelines on safe manning for vessels operating a “master and mate” system and the requirements of STCW relating to a designated (and dedicated) lookout, working as an integral part of the bridge team.
Gard has seen many cases which mirror the problems identified by the MAIB. A couple of examples will suffice.
The vessel operated with seven crew (one more than stipulated in her Safe Manning Certificate). The master and chief officer operated a “watch-on/watch-off” system. Many of the other crew members had dual roles. The chief officer was on watch when he fell asleep. He was alone on the bridge, despite the provision within STCW that “the OOW may be the sole lookout in daylight conditions” (our emphasis). The chief officer woke up only when the vessel went aground.
Investigations indicated that the chief officer had become fatigued shortly before the incident during periods of intense work and had been unable to obtain enough proper rest before the voyage. When he fell asleep, there was nobody on the bridge to wake him up. The vessel was not fitted with a “dead man’s alarm”. Nor was she required to be.
It is too early to say what the total financial cost will be. It is, however, likely to be significant. This ignores the human cost to the master and chief officer.
The vessel was out of service for over 94 days. The bill for the repairs and costs associated therewith came to around EUR 2 million. The amount awarded to or agreed to be payable to the salvors is not yet known. Nor is the amount paid by the P&I Club for the oil pollution or for any other third party liabilities, but it is clear that the cost to owners and their various insurers arising from the chief officer’s fatigue and the lack of anyone (or anything) to alert either him or another member of the crew to the problem was substantial.
In addition, the chief officer was criminally prosecuted by the Greek authorities for causing oil pollution. He was found guilty and sentenced to 18 months in prison. The sentence was appealed and suspended. Nevertheless, he too has a criminal record.
When one adds in the fact that, as the examples show, the OOW is often the only person on the bridge and there is no alarm which operates so as to alert either the OOW or anyone else to the fact that there is nobody navigating the vessel, one has a recipe for disaster. The examples are merely the tip of the iceberg.
If owners, insurers and legislators wish to remedy the problem, an industry-wide approach is needed. It has been shown that, where the will exists, agreement can be reached and legislation enacted quickly. The MAIB report was published in July 2004. The MCA appears to have accepted its views and recommendations, and the IMO was looking at the issues of seafarer fatigue, work and rest hours and the appropriate levels of safe and minimum manning.
The secretary general of the IMO suggested that particular attention should be paid to the levels of safe manning so as to ensure that watches and watchkeeping hours are correctly performed and observed. The International Shipping Federation, representing many of the world’s leading shipowners, reportedly called for STCW to be reviewed and brought up to date, taking into account developments in ship operation and technology since the convention came into force.
It is therefore disappointing to see reports of a recent meeting of the IMO sub-committee on STCW stating that there was apparently “a lot of opposition at that meeting, mainly on financial grounds” to amending the existing regulations. According to the reports, certain countries, which one might expect to be at the forefront of safety at sea, have opposed any tightening of the rules and in fact may be seeking changes which could well exacerbate the fatigue problem.
Fatigue at sea is a problem which continues to affect shipowners and operators, their customers, the environment, insurers and most importantly, the people on board. Gard believes it is a problem which needs urgent attention. Whether it receives it remains to be seen.