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Preserving the structures that keep seafarers safe

Martin Crawford-Brunt, the CEO of RightShip, writes for Splash today warning shipping not to compromise on safety or risk during the current crisis as that could set the industry back for years to come.

Covid-19 and its economic impact has already had an unprecedented effect on our sector, as well as the wider world. With Clarksons expecting a 5% contraction of seaborne trade in 2020 – the biggest drop in over 35 years – and previously unimaginable restrictions being placed on crews and vessels the world over, it is clear that we face a historic challenge in the coming days, weeks and months.

As we in this sector know all too well, shipping is the invisible lifeblood of our world; and is now even more important than ever in getting goods and supplies to where they are needed. Indeed, we should be very proud that we are playing our part in the global fight to combat the spread of Covid-19 and mitigate its economic and social impact.

In the short weeks since countries around the world have been placed under lockdown, we can see first-hand that this pandemic is placing extraordinary strain on the regulatory framework and structures that our industry has relied on for decades. From class inspections, Port State Control inspections, dry docking and SIRE inspections; it is this rigorous approach to safety and risk that has made headline-making vessel incidents much more infrequent over the last decade.

As the economic impact deepens, we must not lose sight of the importance of these structures in underpinning safety for crews and vessels.

While we collaborate as an industry to provide immediate protection for those working in the supply chain, we should also take a medium and long-term view: in particular, once shipping navigates the immediate impact of the pandemic, and the green shoots of recovery start to be seen, we should be an industry that is proud that it stood up for the safety and welfare of those working at sea in the midst of this human disaster.

With significant trade dislocation expected to continue for the immediate term, there are no easy solutions to this crisis. And any solutions that we do collaborate as a sector to create must avoid a slip in the rigorous standards that we hold ourselves by.

Any compromises and excessive leniency now in relation to safety or risk may seem tempting and easy ‘quick fixes’ for immediate problems. However, there is real potential that a short-term lapse will store up deep issues for the sector that could set back our progress on safety and risk management that has been hard earned over the past twenty years.

Given shipping’s increasing visibility in the global supply chain, a slip in our attitude and approach to risk will only impact us in the long run.

Where we show flexibility, we must be proportionate and pragmatic. Excessive deferrals and delays to inspections and the process of risk management has the potential to cause another ‘Ships of Shame’ – the 1990s Australian parliamentary inquiry into unseaworthy vessels that led to RightShip’s creation.

We should be proud that shipping has never been safer, more open and more collaborative. There are fantastic companies and associations around the world who are working towards fixing our current problems. This joint effort must continue in the coming months, as we find ourselves stretched and having to react to an extraordinarily dynamic situation.

RightShip also has a part to play in finding the best and most impactful solutions. We are in the process of exploring ways that we can support the sector – and are engaging in deep conversations with ship owners, operators, managers, associations and cargo interests on a daily basis to ensure that these solutions are truly representative of the whole market.

We are investigating ways to revamp our inspections process in light of Covid-19, acknowledging that we must reach a balance between risk management and flexibility where we can, to help owners and operators maintain standards for their vessels and their crews. We will be trialling various schemes over the coming months with dry bulk operators.

Covid-19 presents an unprecedented challenge, certainly. But it also brings into sharper focus the reasons why we have these existing structures and processes in place. We must work together to find solutions that allow us to fulfil our crucial role in the supply chain that do not in turn compromise on the rigour that we hold ourselves under. Doing so now would undermine our collective efforts and our shared and ambitious goal of a zero incidents future for shipping.

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