Safety gap threatens transformation

Knut Ørbeck-Nilssen, CEO DNV Maritime, argues that the industry’s safe transition to a decarbonised, digitally enabled future is under threat. New technology and new fuels create a new risk landscape, demanding a renewed look at safety. The time to act, he says, is now.

At DNV we’ve identified a looming ‘safety gap’ between shipping’s existing safety-risk approach and ambitions for greater digitalisation and the adoption of alternative, more environmentally friendly fuels.

Put simply, new developments are creating new safety concerns and the longer we wait to identify and address these, the more the gap will grow.

The dark side of innovation

Let’s start with decarbonisation.

Shipping is targeting the goal of halving GHG emissions by 2050. The only way to achieve this, is through the development and adoption of new technology and alternative, carbon neutral fuels.

There’s a natural, welcome focus on the opportunity here – on the footprints to be diminished, the efficiencies enabled, and the progress achieved. But what of potential dangers?

There are safety challenges that accompany innovation. These may cause serious incidents if not properly managed, and incidents can derail our transition towards carbon neutrality.

Alternative reality

For example, the properties of new and alternative fuels pose specific safety challenges when compared with conventional ones. Ammonia is an exciting alternative, but it remains highly toxic, flammable and requires low temperatures. Hydrogen demands extreme low temperatures if stored as a liquefied gas and high pressure if stored as compressed gas. It also has the smallest of all molecules, making it challenging to contain, as well as a wide flammability range and easy ignition.

In other words, applications of these new fuels on vessels contain vastly different risks to established ones. So, their use demands different safety systems, operational procedures and people skills.

Of course, not all alternatives are so novel. LNG, batteries and now hydro-treated vegetable oil (HVO) have come further along the pathway to regulatory and technical maturity, but they all possess different individual characteristics. This highlights the increasing complexity here, emphasizing there is no feasible ‘one size fits all’ solution.

Collaborative commitment

We need renewed risk controls and a new regulatory approach, based on individual fuel assessments, knowledge and experience. Simply applying existing rules and standards is not an option.

To develop these and close the safety gap requires a collaborative, continual effort. Class has a role to play acting as trailblazers for regulators, gathering expertise, partnering with industry, and developing guidelines. Suppliers, owners, charterers, and yards can work together to ensure a holistic approach to safety onboard – where one decision (on, for example, fuel use or slow-steaming) impacts directly upon another.

And all stakeholders should work together, stepping out of their silos, to build fuel-specific competence and enable a culture of continuous improvement.

We all understand that decarbonisation must move with pace and determination. So, from a safety perspective, we simply cannot afford serious incidents – for the sake of our seafarers and for progress.

Complex challenge requires strategic thinking

Digitalisation too offers huge benefits – with innovative technology and valuable data driving enhanced efficiency, safety and cost controls – but this tectonic industry shift also tears through the established risk landscape.

Increased system complexity sits at the centre of this new world.

Software, sensors and machines with control systems that depend on algorithms, become interconnected and increasingly reliant upon one another, extracting added value when working in concert, but undermining operations when compromised.

Digital channels allow teams to work from centralised locations, while also being geographically dispersed. These new ways of working introduce new risks and new requirements. Who is accountable? What happens if communication is disrupted or interfered with, or remote operators are rapidly called into action for an imminent safety incident onboard?

Everyone is enthusiastic to unlock benefits, but this can lead to a scattered and fragmented approach regarding solutions, creating a patchwork of digital labyrinths.

To deliver efficiency safely, and adapt to technological change, this complexity must be managed. In other words, companies need a digital transformation strategy.

Digital thinking, like the systems themselves, should be connected. Decisions should be made holistically with a company’s digital ambition at the core.

The digital transformation strategy should support the organisation’s goals and must be understood by and communicated to all relevant stakeholders.

People are key

And it’s this final point that really ties the decarbonisation and digital transitions together – people are key.

If we want to ensure a safe, timely and impactful maritime transformation, we as an industry, must embrace the potential in our seafarers and onshore personnel. Continual competence development in these developing areas is critical to manage the transition safely. Silos must be broken down in a collaborative, connected approach to fertilise knowledge sharing, while safety data and information should be shared for the betterment of safety at sea.

People working together can release a rich potential of collective creativity, expertise and resourcefulness that helps the industry identify and manage new risks in a holistic, structured and successful manner.

Put simply, we cannot afford to be led by developments, we must lead them.

That’s the only way we can close the safety gap and truly transform our industry.


  1. Breaking down silos hey? Well perhaps a good place to start would be with classification societies? How many are there again? All with their own guidelines & all ready to charge a fee for companies trying to bring innovative technologies to shipping.

    As for “Digital thinking, like the systems themselves, should be connected. Decisions should be made holistically with a company’s digital ambition at the core.” I have no idea what that means. Perhaps digital thinking means we can only think of a 1 or a 0? 😉

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