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Maritime Transportation (Shipping) Safety: Threats To The Maritime Domain



The Maritime industry has been saddled with long term safety issues which have posed several threats to its daily activities; making the maritime industry as well as its operations vulnerable.

The industry irrespective of the various hazards threatening its operations and activities is still regarded as the cheapest and easiest way to move goods and raw materials en-masse, without the restrictions that are associated with geographical boundaries; this gives credence to the fact that 90% of world’s trade is being conducted on the sea.

The sector is the artery of economies of countries around the globe; hence, maritime transportation (shipping) is the key to global trade, economic freedom and national security. This sector epitomizes a viable alternative route to transportation without the ominous limitations of space and time.

The concept of Maritime Safety is the amalgamation of preemptive and reactive measures structured to protect the maritime domain against and limit the effect of accidental or natural danger, harm, damage to the environment, risks or loss of lives and materials while preventing the incidence and that hinders and tampers with its smooth operations.

The maritime industry has over the years experienced threatening accidents and incidence which have affected its various stakeholders and economies resulting in threats and loss of lives; some of these include the1987 Herald of Free Enterprise Loss of Life, 1989 Exxon Valdex Oil spill, the 1986 Russian SS Admiral Nakhimov ship disaster, causing the death of 432 people. MS Estonia 1994 shipwreck disaster that claimed 852 lives, Erika 1999; a ship that broke into two and sank as she ran into a storm, releasing thousands of tons of oil into the sea, killing marine life and polluting shores, the disaster triggered an enormous environmental disaster in its aftermath. The 2002 Prestige Oil spill, 2006 Star Princess grounding leading to loss of lives and 2012 Costal Concordia foundering that killed 32 people, the 2011 Bulgaria sinking which also caused the death of 122 people, amongst others.

These cases became an eye-opener to the susceptibility of sea lives, seafarers as well as other stakeholders to the activities of the maritime sector.

Threats to Maritime Safety
Since the year 1975 till date, the maritime transport (shipping) industry in a bid to abate dangers faced by lives at sea has meticulously focused on improving ship structure and the reliability of ship control and communication system; a feat aimed to reduce casualties as a result of the activities of the maritime sector, thereby increasing efficiency and productivity of seafarers. Consequently, there have been large improvements in hull design, stability systems, propulsion systems, and navigational equipment; giving rise to technologically advance and highly reliable ships and equipment.

This technological innovations and solutions hitherto seem to have underserved the sector; the system is still encumbered with various safety issues, which are largely propelled by human errors amongst other errors.

a. Human Errors
The IMO (2004a) defines human error as a “complex issue affecting marine safety and security”. In the opinion of Senders & Moray (1991, p. 19) human error is the result of behaviour originated from psychological processes on different levels: perception, attention, memory, thinking, problem-solving and decision making. Relating this to the maritime industry human error can be deduced as being one of the following: a misinformed opinion, an incorrect decision, an improperly performed action, or an improper or lack of action (inaction).

A human-related error has been identified as a cause of 65 – 80% of the accidents in a wide variety of industries (Nagel, 1988). Therefore, statistics show that 75-96% of marine casualties are caused (at least in part) by human errors, studies portrays that 84-88% of tanker accidents, 79% of towing vessel groundings, 89-96% of collisions, 75% of allisions and 75% of fires and explosions are all caused substantially or fully by human errors.

A typical example of a human error is shown in the story of the 1978 US Coast Guard Cutter (USCGC) CUYAHOGA and the Argentinean General Cargo Vessel SANTA CRUZ II which collided in the Chesapeake Bay near the mouth of the Potomac River resulting to the loss of eleven (11) lives. Investigations showed that the cause of the casualty was that the commanding officer of USCGC COYAHOGA failed to properly identify the navigation lights displayed by the M/V SANATA CRUZ II, therefore the captain did not comprehend that the vessels were in a meeting situation and altered the COYAHOGA’s course to port taking his vessel into the path of the SANTA CRUZ II. The singular cause of this tragic accident is human error that ranges from the poor perception of the Captain, insufficient manning amongst other factors.

Another human error was exemplified in the negligence of the Assistant Boatswain of The Herald of Free Enterprise RO-RO Ship of 1987 which killed 193 people, the Boatswain was asleep in his cabin when he should have closed the bow-door; this allowed a great inrush of water into the ship, although further investigations showed that the boatswain negligence was a fraction of a line of action and inaction that laid the groundwork for a major accident.

Human errors are largely the causation of several menacing situations that pressures maritime safety. In the past fifteen years, the maritime industry had suffered from incidents, accidents and casualties that are induced directly or indirectly from human error. Hence, every other error in maritime safety is a subset of human error.

b. Technological Error
Technological error in maritime safety can be regarded as a subset of human error; shipping and its relevant technologies are related to human’s technological innovations; the system (marine engineers and their stakeholders) are faced with the formidable challenge of designing safe, environment friendly and cost effective maritime systems that effectively meet the purpose of its construction.

Since the inception of transportation by shipping, there have been conscious efforts to reduce the loss of human and aqua lives caused by activities of seafarers on the sea, these resulted into employing several technological innovations, designs, methodologies and patterns to achieve the purpose, hence in the middle of the 19th century, navigational standards were introduced primarily as regulations to prevent collisions at sea.

However, occurrences over the decades make it apparent that the introduction of modern technologies into maritime transportation (shipping) is not sufficient for safety at sea, in 2011 the Riverboat Sergei Abramov fire incident occurred; a fire that lasted for close to 18 hours before it was successfully extinguished. This incidence had four people on board injured and one crew member missing. The cause of the fire was suspected to be defective electric wiring, and fire safety violation, if this were to be so; this is a clear technological mishap that is related to human error.

Also, the Bulgaria 2011 sinking elucidated technological error; like every other error it was magnified by the dominant human factor; portholes in the vessel were opened because of the lack of air conditioning on the vessel; causing water to gush into the Bulgaria when the captain made an attempt to turn the ship during stormy weather. To further amplify the shortcoming of technology in this instance; for some unknown reason the emergency power did not come in; It was not until Motor Ship Arabella’s crew picked up the first set of survivors that the authorities found out the name of the vessel and the extent of the disaster. This shows that technological errors (although) largely caused by human errors and omissions are a threat to maritime safety.

c. Environmental Error
Environmental errors that affect maritime safety in major cases are not human-induced, majority of these factors are caused by natural occurrences such as weather, sea condition, current, tides, reduction in available navigable water due to silt build up, ice and icebergs, changes in swell and wave characteristics, constructive interference of more than one wave/swell system, presence of excessive organisms/silt, waterborne storm debris, changes to water density e.g. transition from open sea to fresh water, tsunamis, slopes and/or gradients of rivers amongst other.

These can be a major cause of marine incidence or accident and are large of natural cause. For instance, the Royal Mail Steamer Titanic sink in 1912 which killed over 1,500 people, was a direct effect of environmental error as the ship sideswipe an iceberg in an allision in its maiden voyage.

Another case of environmental error, though mostly heightened by human error is the case of the M/V Bulgaria, the ship was travelling on the Volga River when she was caught in a storm and sank; the first error here was caused by an environmental error, which was apparently compounded by the captain trying to turn the boat around.

Challenges faced by Seafarers on the safety
The first step in addressing the threat is to identify some of the challenges faced by seafarers in the sector.

Firstly, the stable progression in maritime trade permits an increase in global shipping, transportation and tonnage, impling and suggesting the need to increase the size of the vessels to meet up with the needs of countries which involved in trades; this birthed the need to reduce manual labour and the urgent investment of the cost of manning on labour saving robotics and assistive technologies; meanwhile, these technologies are subject to glitches and mishaps.

As posited by Butt, 2012, seafarers are subjected to intense pressure which is imposed by their shipping companies coupled with the foreboding pressure to comply with stipulated regulations designed to ensure the safety, security and protection of the marine environment. Moreover, the important associated administrative work is expected to be carried out by the same seafarers without any additional manning on board the vessels to account for the additional hours required to complete the tasks. All these factors impose additional stresses that can impact on the safe administration and passage of a vessel and safety at sea.

In mitigating the safety threats posed by human, technological and environmental errors to maritime shipping, organizations, individuals as well as a stakeholder in the industry need to totally adhere to the safety code postulated to guide its activities.

To battle and curb the menace of human error that plagues the maritime shipping, the IMO after its conference in 1978, created and started the Standard of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) as amended, sets qualification for captains, officers on seagoing merchant ships.

The STCW convention entrenches basic requirements on training, certification and watchkeeping for seafarers on an international level, STCW convention which was established to curb human errors in seafaring, prescribes the minimum standards relating to the training, retraining, certification and watchkeeping for seafarers, therefore, countries that perform trade transactions and employ the use of the sea for other purposes are obliged to meet or exceed these requirements.

The adherence to these regulations are of paramount importance, as they are usually an offshoot of incidence, accident and casualty in the sector; they are strategies, rules and regulations stipulated to prevent and respond to future occurrences, for instance, the case of the Titanic in 1912 imposed the Safety of Life At Sea (SOLAS) convention of 1914, the convention was amended to fit for purpose in 1929, 1948, 1960 and 1974; conventions which are applied to safety of ships that engages in international voyages, also, the consequence suffered in the aftermath of the accident of The Herald of Free Enterprise in 1987 in which 193 lives were lost, the loss of 159 people in a fire onboard the MS Scandinavian Star in 1990, and the MS Estonia shipwreck of 1994 costing 852 lives precipitated the development of the International Safety Management Code – ISM Code, that was designed to provide an international standard for the safe management and operations of ships and for pollution prevention. Furthermore, the casualty case of the Exxon Valdex of 1989 gave rise to the development of the Oil Pollution Act (OPA) in 1990.

Against this backdrop, adequate attention ought to be given to maritime safety by organizations, bodies, and individuals. Commitment to maritime safety should pervade all the operations of the sector. Inasmuch as there are many rules and regulations already in place to guard and guide the activities of the seafarers and their stakeholders, it is still necessary to ensure a permanent process of correction and improvement in safety and security precautionary measures both in port as well as at sea. This should be done by testing and improving modern safety and security equipment, as well as the constant review of training and drills of the crew, both offshore and onshore.

In conclusion, to mitigate the safety threats posed by human, technological and environmental errors to the maritime shipping sector, organizations and individual stakeholder in the industry needs to totally adhere to the safety code postulated to guard and guide its activities.

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