March 06, 2010

Cat amongst the pigeons

Not many sailors realise that there is nothing personal about management blaming them for events leading to an incident. Bluntly put, a manager (and shipowner) can limit or escape liability if he can get away with pinning the blame tail on the mariner donkey. I am certain that I am far from the only Master around who can say, with bitter experience, that investigations conducted by many shipmanagers into any untoward incident at sea are frequently a travesty: they are partisan, corrupted with the overwhelming desire to protect those ashore and are so a farce, as can be expected when any interested party conducts an investigation when it has an inherent conflict of interest. The first (and sometimes only) instinct of any shipmanagement company is to protect itself against blame and liability.

How much is two and two is far less important than how much do the managers want it to be. So blame the crew and the Master (or Chief Engineer), if possible. Whisper “Command Failure”: not too loudly, because somebody on board may spill the beans, but in hushed tones heard only by owners, insurers and regulators. Quietly sign off the Master or involved crew, if you can, without giving them any opportunity to defend the slur on their reputations and without giving any authorities access to them and therefore to the truth. Use innuendo later to degrade the Master or crew. Nothing personal. Just business.

The judgement in the United States against Fleet Management, the managers of the ship that hit the San Francisco Bay Bridge in November 2007, assumes particular significance in this common backdrop. I do not know whether Fleet tried to blame the ship in the immediate aftermath of the incident; I know that many managers would have. Ten million dollars is not a small penalty, but what will send a shudder down many a shipmanager’s spine is not just this number but the use of the term ‘significant management failures’ leading up to the ruling in court. No doubt the severity of the fine is linked partly to attempts to cover up, but as happens periodically, the lid of the Pandora’s Box has been cracked open once again, this time in the US. The court has clearly blamed the management as well as the Master and the pilot (sentenced to ten months in jail earlier) for the crash, and not in hushed tones either. A precedent has been set in a high profile case, and the industry should be concerned that the precedent will become the norm. The cat may be among the pigeons: Imagine if a ship Superintendent were jailed in the US for contributory negligence or forgery.

Equally interestingly for me and surely alarmingly for shipmanagers are some of the failures listed by the court in the Busan affair: at the manager’s behest and with the Master’s knowledge, these involved concealing records, falsifying documents and charts after the event, creating passage plans and entering backdated positions in an attempt to try to show proper planning and monitoring by the ship on departure from the berth. What is interesting is that this kind of behaviour, on the part of either the managers, Masters or crews, is not unusual at all. Once again, it is an attempt to show blamelessness and mitigate or reduce liability. Once again, it is just business.

The Cosco Busan judgement will force shipmanagers in general into a bit of a corner: everybody knows that some of the reasons for the Busan accident were language difficulties, almost zero Master/Pilot information exchange, poor bridge team performance, pressures that had the Busan sailing in thick fog when many other ships did not, a failure to interpret electronic chart information correctly and, finally, good old fashioned poor navigation.

All these lacunae are commonplace on many ships that sail today. English language difficulties are commonplace in an age of multinational crews. Pilots are as guilty of poor or nonexistent English language skills as anybody else is in many parts of the world, including sometimes in Europe. Concepts learnt in BTM courses conducted in a classroom atmosphere translate poorly to short manned ships where anything more than Pidgin English is subject to misinterpretation and navigational skills are lacklustre.

hen, bridge checklists are often filled in after the event and therefore become a paper exercise. Monitoring a ship’s passage during pilotage (and even maneuvering to pilotage) often becomes something that the Master does alone. All this is not only because Masters and crews perform badly, though many do: the issue is more complex than that. Factors such as shortmanning, calibre of officers, fatigue, a system that is paralysed with checklists written in a language many crew are unfamiliar with and commercial pressures all contribute.

So where do we go from here? Well, even given the issues of calibre and language (which are insolvable in the short term), I think there are a couple of things we can do immediately.

If I were a shipmanager, I would first take a hard look at my in house training programme and concentrate hard on navigational safety. I would do whatever it took to improve this in a practical manner: paper be damned. The Busan crashed into the bridge because of poor navigation. That problem, if it exists, has to be fixed first.

I would then take a good hard look at my ISM manuals and modify them with an eye to practicality: slash and burn everything else. I would then go over the ‘new’ manual again, with an eye to the language this time, making it as close to Pidgin English as possible. (Sounds ridiculous, I know, but the alternative is to get more educated and language literate crews). I would then schedule an annual ‘paperwork audit’ to knock off everything except the bare minimum required to comply with international regulations as far as paperwork is concerned. The rest goes into the bin. Objective: Sufficient compliance on paper and much higher compliance in practice. Right now, it is often the other way around.

This course of action has two advantages: One, the manuals and the checklists derived from those may actually get useful as they are simplified. Two, more people may actually understand the damn things, so they are more likely to be followed. Right now, anybody can beat us over the head with our own ISM systems, cumbersome and ill followed that they often are.

We must simplify procedures to make them more effective. Unlike shore establishments, we do not have the luxury of time or clerical manpower available for filling in less than useful (or required) checklists and other such paperwork. As things stand, non compliance with our own ill thought out systems is easy- and, in the context of the Busan judgement, when the term ‘significant management failure’ has been brought out of the closet- can be very expensive.

As for doing away the commonplace post-incident attempts to protect ourselves by subterfuge, fraud and deceit, well, that requires nothing less than a whole new culture.

Postscript: Besides hoping that a certain (and alleged) ship Superintendent in the US I had to deal with has taken note of the Busan ruling, a stray thought: should poor shipmanagers be tried and judged in court, in the aftermath of an incident, before Masters, crews or pilots are?