December 05, 2014

Falling standards- the perfect storm

The situation is near alarming, compared to even half a decade ago, when Shipmasters and Chief Engineers were already cribbing about dropping competence standards at sea. But then, all the elements of this perfect storm have been in place for a while, so it is not surprising that more whitecaps are visible today and that the barometer is dropping fast. And this storm- the competence race to the bottom- is picking up energy and moving ashore too, to Superintendents, DPAs, and other maritime professionals. It will get worse, and it will have a huge impact on safety at sea and the maritime environment.

To me, the first- but by no means the only- problem was always that commitment to safety was never embedded in the business models of most players in the industry. Nobody wants an accident, of course, and everybody says so, but few are willing to put their money where their lip service is. Commitment to safety must go beyond and must involve raising intake and training standards and complying- in letter and spirit- with regulations. This has simply not happened; in fact, it has gotten worse in recent times, magnified by the downturn and the fact that more and more players today make their money buying and selling ships rather than operating them. Speculatory business models hardly think long-term.

Many more incompetent or inexperienced officers are being sent on ships today by managers who know fully well what the risks of doing this entail. Creativity in circumventing regulations has taken new turns. Just one example: During MLC inspections, a couple of States started scrutinising the overtime figures on crews’ pay slips to check if the rest hour sheets were fudged. A well-known manager’s response? Instruct Masters to continue to fudge the rest hour sheets and show the overtime payment as a ‘bonus’ on the pay slip instead. Fatigue- a major proven contributor to accidents- is ok. Being caught is not.

New regulation has worsened the already crippling administrative load on ships. Although a few companies have moved minor clerical work ashore (payroll or victualing, for example), the majority have not. Masters remain overwhelmed by emails, most of them worthless, which every minor shore functionary wants an immediate reply to.  Dropping standards amongst marine superintendents add energy to the perfect storm; one Master complained recently to me that he was being sent copy and paste jobs from a google search in response to a machinery problem!

More junior officers are inexperienced, ill trained and incompetent today. New technology adds to this collapse of standards, especially when senior officers are found wanting too. The grounding of the Ovit off Varne is a prime example, where ECDIS alarms were not working, the wrong scale of chart was in use and normal seamanship forgotten. Much worse is the fact that the Master did not know how to operate the ECDIS properly; he relied on equally incompetent junior officers. And that dangerous navigational marks were sighted by the lookout- and reported -but were disregarded by an officer who only went by his flawed use and interpretation of the ECDIS.

Almost frightening, because anybody who has sailed in the last decade understands too easily why  this sort of thing is common. All of us understand too well how catastrophically this can affect basic navigational safety.

Despite the known effect of low morale on safety, owners’ commitment to the rights and welfare of seamen has also dropped. The MLC2006 is hardly going to change hardened mind-sets. No wonder statistics say that, since the entry into force of the MLC, ‘detainable deficiencies were most frequently recorded in the areas “payment of wages” (39.5%), and “manning levels for the ship” (28.6%). Other areas with high deficiency levels are “health and safety and accident prevention” (43.1%), “food and catering” (15.4%) and “accommodation” (10%).

Are you surprised? I am not. Nothing will improve as long as everybody in shipping is focused on just making money at the expense of everything else. It should be obvious why this mind-set impacts safety negatively and massively.

We should also be considering the fact that this mind-set is the reason why most youngsters consider seafaring a third rate profession, and how low-calibre intake has a direct impact on safety. We should consider that we are growing junior officers at a time when professional maritime pride has been hammered into non-existence. By the time these juniors become seniors, their ability to say an authoritative no to a potentially unsafe act- whether proposed by the owners, managers or crew- has been eroded significantly.

That erosion is well underway already, including with Chief Officers waiting for their first Command. Who treat everything the managers and owners say as gospel. Who will rarely dare to say no to any directive, unsafe or not, that comes out of the mouths of these deities, and neither will they contradict anything written on paper, especially if it is part of a good looking manual.

They are the eye of this perfect storm.




Unknown said...

Dear Manu,

Thanks for an insightful post! This is why I follow your blog, and refer my friends to it, too.

This perfect storm you speak of is slow-developing but powerful, and its effects are being felt worldwide. See this Maritime Executive post (if you haven't already) regarding similar developments in Australia:

And I can say that much of what you and Sandy Gailbraith have to say applies from the American perspective, too.

I also thought that what Mr. Gailbraith noted about the Danish system should be very instructive to anyone in the maritime realm, anywhere else in the world - including the U.S. and India.

Oddly, in spite of the fact that maritime matters should be of first importance to India, Australia and the U.S. - as all three are highly dependent upon a healthy merchant marine - we all seem to give maritime issues very short shrift.

When the time comes to pay the piper, though, the bill will be steep - and not quickly paid.

That's on the national economic scale. But on the scale of the individual seafarer, the ill effects are present and ongoing!

However, neither the prudent, long-term economic view nor the welfare of the individual seaman are being considered for one second by those who see profits today - for themselves, and no one else - to be the measuring stick of modern maritime business.


manu said...

Yes, the Danish model (of which I was quite unaware until your link, thanks)is one of the ways to go.

Overall, though, shipping needs to correct one basic misconception. Seamen are not a cost. They are a big reason why you make money.

Unknown said...

Yes, and it's funny how money expended on equipment is regarded as an 'investment', but money expended on people is considered a 'cost', like fuel. How different would our industry (and the world) be if people were considered an investment?