January 06, 2011

Nickel-and-diming and expendable seafarers

Shipping loves to tom-tom its commitment to safety, or perhaps it just loves the endless process of amendments to the STCW conventions that hint at it. For those in the lucrative business of consultancy or regulation in the formulating, mandating and selling of new training, the road is often the destination, and resolutions at the IMO or elsewhere often a substitute for results. That the process is a gravy train cannot be helped: it is a dirty job but somebody has to do it.

Meanwhile, urgent warnings on clear and present dangers to ships remain ignored. As an example and despite Intercargo’s repeated warnings on the loading of ore fines and wet ore- the latest warning was in the middle of last month- little is being done to address the issue. No doubt, we will have some safety committee meetings and some strong resolutions down the road when we are relatively free after the holiday season.

Meanwhile, fourty-four seafarers died as three ships capsized in a thirty-nine day period ending early December, says Intercargo, the dry-cargo trade group with a NGO status at the IMO. In a strongly worded report on hazardous cargoes titled “The Unanswered Questions and why seafarers should not be considered expendable”, it says it informed the IMO recently about the dangers of transportation of ore fines and wet ores- particularly iron and nickel. It says that all the three most recent sinkings - the Jian Fu Star (October 27th, 13 fatalities); the Nasco Diamond (November 10th, 21 fatalities) and the Hong Wei (3rd December. 10 fatalities) reportedly all carried nickel ore, all loaded in Indonesia bound for China, all loaded in Chinese operated, Panamanian flagged and Chinese manned ships- and all ships sank in broadly the same location.

Even Inspector Clouseau can connect the dots here, but he does not really need to, because the dangers of transporting bulk cargo that may liquefy- and thereafter pose a sometimes-fatal threat to the ship’s stability- have been well known for a few generations. There should have been no need for Intercargo to bring it to the mandarins’ attention. Closer home and well over a year ago, the capsizing of the Asian Forest off Mangalore and the Black Rose off the Orissa coast had created a little storm in a littler teacup, resulting in the DGS issuing a circular indirectly blaming unscrupulous shippers and callous (or corrupt?) port authority personnel. "Shippers and port authorities are not extending the support to the Masters of ships calling Indian ports for loading Iron ore fines", the notice had said, before directing agents to advise ships calling their ports about the risks of loading iron ore fines. Ports were additionally directed to "do everything possible to ensure safe carriage & transportation of solid bulk cargo including Iron ore fines."

Today, about fifteen months after that notice, India is renamed and re-shamed by Intercargo as one of the three countries (the other two are Indonesia and the Philippines) ship owners must be wary of when it comes to loading ore fines.

I can tell you from experience that some Masters and ship owners, inexperienced in dealing with bulk cargoes that may be wet before shipment, do not fully appreciate the importance of Transportation Moisture Limits or the criticality of knowing the moisture content of iffy cargoes. Add the fact that the dishonest and the corrupt sometimes collude- in certain countries including in India- in producing fake test certificates that indicate a lower moisture content and you have the makings of imminent catastrophe, especially in tropical countries where it can rain anytime. Monsoons in India are an added threat, because much of the ore is stowed in the open. Independent surveyors may be discouraged by some systems and Masters pressurised by both owners and charterers to load and sail, especially when the TML readings are borderline. We know that game. Unfortunately, the end game may be slurry moving around in your holds, the ship listing and, if you are unlucky, capsizing and drowning you and your crew.

I fear that, given Chinese- and to a lesser extent Indian- hunger for raw material including ores, the threat to seafarers carrying commodities in bulk will increase exponentially as these countries, amongst others, grow and consume more. Bulk cargo joint venture collaborations by the Shipping Corporation of India and the Steel Authority of India, and another by the TATA-NYK groups, should tell us that this is just a matter of time.

I actually do not see this threat as one that will be erased by IMO intervention. IMO pressure may help, but that will come, as usual, too late for those sailors who have died and those that are at risk right now. We need better solutions than resolutions.

The industry needs to do two things- the first one immediately, in my opinion. This is that ship owners planning to carry bulk ores should educate themselves and their crews, if required, on the dangers of cargo liquefaction, and they should encourage- even demand- that Masters seek independent verification of ore moisture content in suspicious ports. Ship owners should then back Masters to shut out cargoes that are dangerous or where the certification is suspected to be doctored.

Two, commercial and other pressure (the IMO can help here) should be put on shippers and countries that have a history of putting crews and ships at risk when it comes to wet ores or fines. Living in India, I admit that this may not be easy; therefore, the first option- exercise of the Master’s authority to shut out cargo- becomes even more important.

Of course, there may well be ignorant or corrupt Masters or substandard (and well-insured) ship owners out there that will ignore TML limits. I have nothing to say to them, except that I hope they do not get what they deserve.


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