The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) has issued a stark warning that if temporary short cuts adopted by many in the industry during the Covid-19 pandemic continue or become permanent, then there will be a rise in shipping accidents and environmental disasters.
The predictions are contained within a new report from the federation’s Maritime Safety Committee.
The shipping industry is now a ticking timebomb towards an environmental catastrophe
Report co-author and chair of the Maritime Safety Committee, Odd Rune Malterud, said the investigation shows an unsustainable trend by industry players, including flag starts, to deprioritise ship safety out of expedience rather than necessity.
“Some industry players are pushing for exemptions from, or the outright suspension of, important international rules. These rules were introduced to protect seafarers’ safety, lives, and the marine environment over many decades. They are the result of learning from incidents in the past: be it an accident; a drowning; a spill; a grounding; or a death,” Malterud said.
Taking the rise of remote inspections as an example, ITF has said it favours the use of drones to check out dangerous areas of a ship, but reckons it is unacceptable to see countries like Norway allowing remote inspections where crew themselves are expected to independently and objectively report on their own safety and security on top of their watch keeping duties.
“Given the growing power imbalance caused by the crew change crisis, crew are under enormous pressure to appease their employers, who are often a seafarer’s only way off a ship after months at sea. What is more – most employers will expect crew to pick up these remote inspection tasks on top of their already overburdened workload, often when a seafarer is supposed to be keeping watch for everyone’s safety,” Malterud said.
Malterud said the report was about putting a line in the sand over the industry’s rapid backslide on safety and seafarers’ rights.
“Enough is enough,” Malterud said. “It is our obligation as seafarers’ representatives to raise the warning because what we are witnessing right now causes us extreme worry. We cannot in good conscience be complacent and allow seafarers’ safety and security to be put at risk. The shipping industry is now a ticking timebomb towards an environmental catastrophe. Pandemic or not: the public will not accept more deaths at sea and strewn ships spilling oil over precious coastal wildlife. That is the consequence of allowing this much risk in the industry.”
Has Covid-19 played a part in recent accidents
ITF Seafarers and Inland Navigation Section coordinator, Fabrizio Barcellona, said the ITF’s Crew Change Survey for September showed that seafarers recognised rising risk in the industry.
73.3% of seafarers who took the ITF survey said they worried about being tired and fatigued, while 60.1% said it was more likely than not that they or their crewmates would be involved in an accident that could harm human life, property or the marine environment due to tiredness or fatigue while onboard.
“Government restrictions on borders, travel and transit have made it difficult to recruit seafarers and some in the industry are responding by dumping more and more work on the tired and fatigued workforce who remain on ships,” Barcellona said.
Barcellona said flag states have been “making a mockery” of minimum safe manning levels during the pandemic.
“Inadequate manning levels spread the same workload across a smaller number of seafarers,” he warned.
Barcellona said the ITF and its affiliated unions are calling for flag states and port states to get back to enforcing the rules, most of which they created through the International Maritime Organisation.
“We understood the need for flexibility early on in this pandemic. But it has been six months now, and we have reached the safe limit of exemptions, extensions and all-too-convenient interpretations of these life-saving rules. If action is not taken, there will loss of human life and irreparable damage to marine ecosystems,” said Barcellona.
The ITF warning comes on the back of a number of high profile shipping accidents including the Wakashio newcastlemax off Mauritius, the New Diamond VLCC off Sri Lanka and the Gulf Livestock 1 sinking in the East China Sea.
The recent spate of grim casualties cannot simply be written off as bad luck, Seafarers’ Rights International (SRI), the international pan-industry body researching maritime and seafarers’ law, has suggested. SRI has pointed out that the failure to treat seafarers as keyworkers during the pandemic is having devastating effects on individuals, who are now at risk of being caught in a perfect storm of exhaustion from extended employment agreements, increasing numbers of accidents, maritime casualties, and unfair criminal investigations.
“The response to this seems to be to blame the seafarer,” said Deirdre Fitzpatrick, executive director of SRI, in a recent release.
Fitzpatrick went on to say: “The spotlight should be on how the industry responds to these recent casualties. Has Covid-19 played a part in these situations? Will there be fair investigations – as mandatorily required under the IMO Code for Safety Investigations – so lessons can be learned to prevent further tragic loss of seafarers’ lives and damage to the marine environment?”