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Open Knowledge: In your experience, what were the biggest risks to ship safety?

Rahul Khanna: One of the key issues I faced in the latter part of my career was the declining quality of crew members. It was getting harder to find quality people who had enough experience and training, especially on specialized ships like tankers. And that has a strong impact on safety.

One example was a new Chief Officer who on paper had experience of the type of tankers I was commanding. He was responsible for loading the oil cargo but he made some critical errors and we had a massive pressure surge.

Luckily the shore systems tripped in time to avoid a pipeline break and the resulting pollution. The investigation found that he wasn’t experienced enough with these operations.

These are not isolated issues. One part of the problem is that, although training is in place, training standards vary from country to country, culture to culture. The other problem is the lack of experience. Senior officers need a few years under their belt to understand and mitigate risks.

 

Why is there a shortage of good crew members?

The problem arises from many years ago. As the economies of traditional European seafaring nations improved and better opportunities were to be found ashore, seafaring no longer was a preferred profession. The industry looked eastwards for new sources of manpower.

The cycle repeated itself when the Asian and Indian subcontinent economies developed. This led to shortage of experienced and skilled manpower as key skills were not necessarily transferred during these transitions.

Couple this decline from seafaring nations with the shipping construction boom from about the year 2000 onwards and you have a serious shortage of quality crew.

 

What would you like to see happen to improve crew quality?

Companies must put more effort into training and their internal standards because it will take years for the IMO (International Maritime Organization) to do that. Companies must realise they would benefit from more expenditure on safety and training rather than cost cutting.

We used to have a saying in the industry: “If you think safety is expensive, try an accident.“

Some companies do go to extra lengths to do seminars, training, even accident simulations when the crew is ashore. They have an open dialogue between crew and management. These forums are very helpful.

Captain Rahul Khanna, Senior Risk Consultant, Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty (AGCS): "Companies must realise they would benefit from more expenditure on safety and training rather than cost cutting."
Captain Rahul Khanna, Senior Risk Consultant, Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty (AGCS): "Companies must realise they would benefit from more expenditure on safety and training rather than cost cutting."

So does the buck stop with ship operators? Who really decides safety standards?

It is very difficult to pinpoint one body or team responsible for safety on a ship. It is a collective responsibility including the team onboard, ship managers, the country of control, classification societies, or inspectors from oil majors if it is a tanker.

One body can’t do it alone and in any case the IMO doesn’t have enough teeth. The IMO can’t enforce regulations on countries. It can only put forward conventions and countries have to incorporate them into their national laws. That is one of the key problems shipping has.

 

Many people wonder if the flag of convenience system, with ships registered in Liberia or Panama, has an impact on safety.

The perception is that flags of convenience allow companies to operate way below minimum safety standards but that is not really the truth. Financial benefits are the primary motive rather than short cuts on safety. And avoiding certain restrictions: for example, under some flags you can only employ citizens of that country onboard.

Although some flags do allow relaxation of the regulations, a lot of companies operate way above minimum standards. But there are dubious companies too, and some may operate in a manner not considered the safest.

 

As an insurer, do you rate certain flags as safer than others?

Personally I would not judge a company by the flag it flies for the simple reason that a lot of good companies fly flags of convenience.

 

So what are the most important factors when assessing safety risks and safety systems?

When looking at insuring a fleet we start with the safety management systems onboard the vessels: how the system is running and how the owners are enforcing it, is it dynamic; is it learning from accidents, have they put in additional standards?

We look at how they conduct training. Are certificates enough or do they do in-house training and go the extra mile not required by regulations? Is there a smooth flow of information between ship and shore? If a master identifies problems is he getting enough support?

 

What about the ships themselves, what are the best recent safety innovations?

Personally I think the ECDIS [Electronic Chart Display and Information] system is a wonderful advance. On one screen you can get navigational charts, radar interface, engine data, weather, and lots of other information that used to come from different instruments.

But there is problem with it because it tends to bring in a bit of complacency. When everything is there in front of you tend not to look anywhere else. As good as the technology is people need to know where that data is coming from and how to use it. You have to train people to deal with it. It is easy to get carried away with new technology and forget what dangers it may bring.

 

With the Costa Concordia and the Titanic anniversary in mind, are today’s cruise ships too big? Can they be evacuated in time after an accident?

Ships will grow bigger and I don’t see any reason why they should not. The size of ships doesn’t mean they will be inherently less safe. Historically ships have grown in size and historically ships have become safer. Losses have definitely reduced and safety has definitely improved. During the 15 years since I joined as a cadet I’ve seen a lot of improvements, in mindset and basic attitudes towards safety.

But before making these ships there should be complete risk assessments. A lot of organizations are doing research on whether it’s possible to evacuate 4000-5000 people in 30 minutes from a ship and preliminary results show that it can be done.

Yes, if you have a one-in-a-million accident like the Titanic, or a rogue wave that breaks a ship apart, you will have a major problem. But that’s the same whether there are 1000 or 5000 people on board. It doesn’t mean we stop building bigger and better ships.

James Tulloch

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