Crew training vital for safe sailing of LNG-fuelled ships

LNG bunkering at Port of Antwerp. Credit: Antwerp Port Authority
LNG bunkering at Port of Antwerp. Credit: Antwerp Port Authority

In recent years the IMO has rubber-stamped a series of regulations that seek to supress the environmental impact of global shipping operations. The installation of technologies on board ships to limit invasive species transfer has been mandated, ship efficiency design requirements are in force through the Energy Efficiency Design index (EEDI) regulation, and numerous regulations to stimulate the reduction of emissions to the air have been established in the past decade alone.

Intensified pressure on ship operators to burn cleaner fuels to ensure compliance with future regulations has seen growing interest by the industry in liquefied natural gas (LNG) propulsion. A myriad of vessels on the orderbooks of shipyards across the globe have been designed to use LNG fuel. However, the predicted LNG fuel boom is not limited to new vessels. An increasing number of existing ships are being adapted for LNG use, despite initial reservations, fuelled by the weak business case surrounding LNG fuel adoption that initially suppressed its popularity as an option for regulatory compliance.

In the wake of the recent global sulphur cap ruling, however, there has been a sea-change in interest in LNG as fuel for new and existing vessels. As of 1 January 2020, all ships will be permitted to only bunker fuels with a sulphur content of less than 0.50% m/m.This drop in the permitted sulphur content of fuel from the current cap of 3.50% has catalysed this shift. The winds of change have begun to blow and this heavyweight regulatory driver has changed the business case, boosting LNG’s commercial attractiveness for existing vessels.

As the global shipping fleet sails towards this landmark date, preparations are in full swing. Many companies are making their existing vessels ‘LNG-ready’ in anticipation of these strict bunker fuel sulphur constraints. This means there is a growing number of vessels on the water that have been retrofitted to use LNG fuel and more can be expected.

Classification society Lloyd’s Register predicted in 2015 that LNG-fuelled ships would make up 11% of the global fleet in 2030. In November 2017, fellow classification society DNV GL released data that confirmed that there were 117 ships on the water using LNG and a confirmed orderbook for 111 more. The data also specified that there were 114 existing vessels classified as being LNG-ready that could use LNG fuel with modification to varying degrees.

This increase in the number of LNG-fuelled ships navigating the world’s oceans will have a great impact on crew who have, in the majority, been accustomed to working on ships that use HFO as fuel.

Of course, operators of ships voyaging within emission control areas (ECAs) have already been exposed to strict fuel sulphur content restrictions of 0.1%. For them, strategic decisions have already been made and changes in crew training and safety procedures have been addressed, as required. Crew have been trained to adapt to changing fuels, the operation of new technologies, and associated procedures have been put in place.

Favoured options for ECA compliance, however, have to date been the installation of scrubbers or bunkering low-sulphur fuel oils (LSFO) such as marine gasoil (MGO) and marine diesel oil (MDO) for use in ECAs, and switching to HFO use when outside an ECA boundary. LNG, although an option, was generally not adopted for existing vessels due to the high investment costs. Therefore, LNG use by existing vessels will pose new safety and crew training challenges.

Concerns for crew

For ships that have been made ‘LNG-ready’, it is important to realise that the impact on crew and safety considerations are not immediate. LNG-ready preparations usually demand structural changes on board the vessel including the installation of additional steel structures where required. LNG storage tanks demand sufficient space on board, with associated safety requirements for the designated area. Some engines can be modified for LNG use and this is the favoured option for existing vessels rather than exchanging the engine in situ for a new dual-fuel model. The extent of changes required on board depend on the scale of the LNG readiness that is being implemented. This can range from relatively minor to major changes.

At this intermediate step, crew training requirements are no different to those required for normal vessel operation. When the LNG-ready ship starts to bunker LNG fuel, safety requirements specific to LNG storage and use come into play.

Ray Gillett, director and general manager at GTT Training and chair of the working group on training and competence in the Society for Gas as a Marine Fuel (SGMF), told SAS, “The crew on board LNG-ready vessels just need to be aware of the changes that have been implemented for LNG fuel use in case those changes affect any of their existing operating procedures. Additional training requirements only come into effect when the vessel is to take on and start using LNG. That is when the risk profile changes.”

This means that for crew working on board retrofitted vessels that are actively using LNG fuel, training is essential. LNG carries additional safety hazards that differ to those for traditional fuel oils. These are chiefly centered on cryogenic temperature requirements, asphyxiation, and fire and explosion. .

If operated properly, with crew following enhanced or differing procedures, the use of LNG fuel is safe. However, for the continuation of safety on board, a change of mindset towards enhanced safety requirements is necessary. There are safety considerations or policies that crew on HFO-powered ships are not accustomed to.

Gillett also said that that a major safety risk arises if crew on board treat LNG as a fuel, without the intense focus on the safety of LNG if it were a cargo. “Crew on LNG carriers must be adequately trained to be very aware of issues that could occur and how to contain them. Herein lies a key issue: getting crew on board LNG-powered ships to realise that LNG is not the same as fuel oil, and how it presents different risks,” he said.

However, Gillett reported that companies currently moving into the field of LNG fuel use were making the investment required to fully train their crews to address the safety risk. But, he added, he sees problems arising in training and safety risk when LNG becomes a more mainstream fuel.

The IMO has developed mandatory training requirements for crew destined for LNG-fuelled ships. This requires attendance at basic familiarisation training by all crew, and advanced training for senior crew. These courses can be classroom-based and can have a one or two-day duration, or up to a week for the advanced training.

Some industry experts argue that these training requirements are not enough to ensure ultimate safety. Nevertheless, the training requirements mitigate the huge risk that untrained, inexperienced crews transferred on to LNG-fuelled ships from other ship types present if they are not adequately trained. If a safety catastrophe were to happen on board a ship retrofitted for LNG fuel use or a new LNG-powered ship leaving the yard, it would set the industry alight with renewed safety concerns. For now, the safety of LNG fuel when being using a prepared crew is paramount for the industry’s growing LNG-fuelled fleet.