There is a general consensus within the maritime industry that our current system of vessel inspections is not working. The rise in substandard vessels, increased losses in bulk carriers, the growing number of tanker accidents and associated claims, all underscore the need for an improved method of vessel inspections. Action toward this end is already underway.
From a legislative standpoint, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 continues to be refined to enhance tanker surveys. There have also been several new vessel compliance initiatives introduced by Frederico Pena, Secretary of Transportation and at least one regulatory agency – the United States Coast Guard has increased its watchdog role with respect to substandard vessels. Among the most ambitious initiatives for improved vessel inspections has come from the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Recently, the IMO, through its Safety Committee, announced new ‘Safety of Life at Sea’ amendments sending a further alert to ship owners, operators, managers and chatterers. However, as far back as 1 July 1993, the IMO proposed mandatory ‘enhanced surveys’ of existing tankers and bulk carriers. Its intention was to identify substandard vessels. The proposal was met with much approval and was specifically endorsed by both the International Association of Classification Societies (IACS) and INTERTANKO.
IMO’s proposed ‘enhanced surveys’ included the replacement of continuous hull surveys with five-year special surveys to coincide with a vessel’s dry-docking, which became mandatory for special surveys concluded after 1 July 1994. Included in the special surveys would be a careful, close-up inspection of the hull’s critical structural areas in order to identify and address potential stress points such as fatigue cracks, coating corrosion, structural deficiencies, etc. This thorough inspection was to be augmented by the services of a certified gauging company whose responsibility would be to measure the thick-ness of the hull and further determine its structural integrity.
Unquestionably, IMO took a step in the right direction as have the various industry associations, including BIMCO and ISMA, along with the classification societies and P&I clubs, for their promotion of Quality Assurance certification. Unquestionably, vessel inspections will factor heavily into an organization’s certification. Still, while the industry continues to introduce new measures to improve vessel inspections and overall quality, there are some basic factors which owners/operators should understand in doing their part to reduce the world’s population of substandard vessels.
The oil industry has been championing the cause of better quality vessel surveys for some time. However, hampering its efforts are the wide range of inspection parameters used by the different oil companies. For any six companies, there can be an equal number of inspection formats in use. Adding yet another inspection for-mat to follow are the OCIMF guidelines. A better alternative would be to combine the best features from the various inspections and establish a standard tanker process. Similarly, a standard process for inspecting bulk carriers and other vessel types should he implemented.
In addition to establishing uniform inspection processes, addressing the problem of substandard vessels demands a better understanding of those factors which contribute to this category of vessel. They are: a vessel’s age, its design and construction, proper application, crew, maintenance and repair programmes.
Fifteen years and counting
Additional red flags should be raised in inspections of older vessels which have changed class. Unfortunately, this very practice has been used for the purpose of avoiding stricter inspection criteria. The only way to prevent misuse of class revisions is through greater co-operation and emphasis on the enhanced survey process between the classification societies, port authorities and under-writers. These groups must work together and with the same objective in mind; namely to improve vessel inspections. A positive outcome of their collaborative effort would be a reduction in number of inspections each vessel must undergo. For too long, the industry has pacified itself believing more was better with respect to vessel inspections. It is time to abandon quantity for quality. To achieve this goal, the industry should give consideration to establishing a body of qualified engineering surveyors, employed under the auspices of the port authorities, and whose sole role would be to inspect every vessel prior to giving port clearance.
Just as a vessel’s age should signal certain measures in the inspection process, so too should its design and construction. Just as with other modes of transportation, new designs should be subject to considerable safety testing. Consider the case of the Derbyshire, which in 1976 was hailed as the state-of-the-art design in bulk carriers. The vessel was owned by one of the United Kingdom’s most reputable ship owners, with an outstanding reputation for high quality vessels. In commissioning the construction of this new type of bulk carrier, the owner undoubtedly did not expect to be compromising safety. Unfortunately, however, after the vessel’s untimely sinking in 1980, amidst a typhoon, the follow-up investigations would indicate that its design may well have been a primary factor.
Apparently, the Derbyshire’s modular eight cargo hull design and high tensile steel composition was vulnerable to stresses in two particular areas – at the 0.25 ship length position from the bow and 0.2 ship lengths from the stern. High loading rates further stressed the design, which, when coupled with a high tensile steel composition, gave way to these weaknesses. The investigation of the Derbyshire which, at various times, involved the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the International Transport Workers’ Federation, among others, showed the recovered Derbyshire wreckage to have major cracking. According to the DOT’s 1985 draft report, which included research by Bishop Price & Partners Ltd and the British Ship Research Association, the cracking occurred ‘so rapidly and extensively that total structural failure resulted’, eventually leading to the ship’s capsizing. Effective vessel vetting practices would scrutinize new designs from the standpoint of potential stresses.
Vetting procedures for new and old vessels alike should include a careful survey of the strength and fatigue of the hull. If coating corrosion, pitting, cracks or other signs of previous repairs exist, the condition(s) should be weighed both from a general safety standpoint as well as in conjunction with the vessel’s intended set-vice. For instance, will it be sailing in salt or fresh water? What type of cargo will it be transporting? Dry cargo, bulk cargo or crude products? What are its loading and discharging requirements? Bulk carriers, in particular experience high loading rates of 15 000 tonnes per hour, with loads dropped from heights of 50-60 feet, which will definitely have an impact on a vessel’s structure.
Anyone who has been on-board during the loading process will attest to the heavy vibrations set off during loading. When a vessel displays signs of excessive fatigue or heavy corrosion, further scrutiny is in order.
Another area of crew evaluation which should be emphasized is communications among officers and crew members. It is not unusual today to have vessels crewed by individuals from multiple nations, which can create a serious language barrier. Vessel inspections should include criteria to identify and minimize communications problems, which could lead to accidents, cargo loss, vessel damage and other casualties.
Other basic measures for better inspection
• Improving the quality of vessel inspections is an attain-able goal. In addition to the aforementioned practices, there are several basic steps which would assist in better vessel surveys. They include:
• Advising the vessel in advance that an inspection will be conducted and that proper protocol should be followed. (This policy fosters co-operation which helps facilitate the inspection process).
• Assign the right person(s) to conduct the inspection.
• Apply an integrated approach, assigning individuals to inspect that portion of the vessel with which they are most experienced and qualified.
• Use photographs and videos both to document different vessel conditions and assist in corrective measures, when necessary.
• Notify the vessel master, as well as the party contracting the inspection (eg. vessel owner, ship manager, operator or chatterer) of any deficiencies uncovered during the inspection.
• Record inspection findings in any easy to follow report format, such as a checklist which can be accompanied by narrative explanations where required.
• Provide the inspection report promptly so that its recommendations can be implemented in a timely manner.
Every leading marine publication has reported statistical data or casualty news, documenting the need for improved vessel inspections. When The Institute of London Underwriters (ILU) released first quarter 1994 statistics demonstrating merchant ship casualties to be up over the same period in the previous year, the maritime industry took notice. ILU’s report, which related to ships in excess of 500 gt, indicated the loss (total or constructive total loss) of 24 ships. Losses were attributed to expensive hull losses, fires, explosions and vessel groundings. Human losses were assessed at a total of 179 people, either killed or reported missing. These statistics are just another indication that the problem continues to exist. Unfortunately, there are others which follow Suit. That is the bad news, but as previously noted, there are positive measures being taken. Consider one of the world’s leading oil companies, CITGO Petroleum Corporation.
CITGO utilizes experienced in-house personnel in addition to qualified professionals from our own company to perform thorough vessel inspections. There is a process currently being developed by which every vessel calling at a CITGO facility, regardless of whether it has been chartered by the company, must undergo a careful inspection and approval process prior to berthing. The initiative is currently underway for small tank barges with a similar programme being finalized for larger tank vessels and crude carriers. Along with its comprehensive inspections, CITGO also requires that every seagoing tank vessel be staffed with competent marine technical attendance at all times.
To qualify for the post, mariners must possess a minimum of a master mariner’s license, and have tanker sailing experience.
CITGO is not alone in its independent programmes to foster better vessel inspections. Many of the other major oil companies, quality ship owners, operators and managers, are also acting on their own initiative to improve the vessel surveying process. After all, it is in their best interests. Reducing accidents and casualties is only half of the outcome of improved vessel inspections. Lower operating, maintenance, repair and insurance costs, and the ability to remain competitive, are equally strong incentives.