COVID-19 restrictions on inspection surveys poses long-term problem for maritime safety

AMSA about to board a vessel to carry out a PSC inspection. Credit: Marex Marigon

Surveys and inspection are being hampered by coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) restrictions on personnel in ports. Port State Control (PSC) regimes are still carrying out targeted surveys but the wider impact on data gathering, maritime safety, and increased digitalisation through remote surveys needs to be evaluated.

In April, the 10 PSC regimes announced at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) that they will continue to target high-risk or substandard ships, despite the reduction in the number of physical on-board inspections due to COVID-19 restrictions. PSC regimes appear to be making the best of a bad situation: “these are the vessels that have an extremely high frequency of accidents, so focusing on them would be the most effective operation under current restrictions,” said Nina Waldfogel, product marketing manager, Windward, “It’s basically a risk-based approach, making the most impact on maritime safety in the current situation.”

However, the decrease in number of inspections will have an overriding impact on PSC data collection and maritime safety analysis. P&I Clubs will be especially impacted. Marius Schønberg, VP head of loss prevention at Gard said that  PSC data is one of the principal datasets used in risk assessment processes for new entries or for monitoring existing fleets.  “When PSC data is lacking we will have one important data point missing. Monitoring of maritime safety will be more difficult – and assessments would be done with less data points,” explained Schønberg.

Waldfogel concurs that the loss of the PSC data under COVID-19 could have important future ramifications, as it could get harder to distinguish between high- or low-risk vessels. “The loss of such important insights could have long-term ramifications for anyone involved in the maritime ecosystem, such as charterers deciding which vessels to charter, insurers determining the appropriate terms and conditions for their insureds, and more,” she said. Waldfogel specified that the missing inspection data wouldn’t stop risk-assessment models from working immediately, but their effectiveness may decrease over time if a solution is not found.

When COVID-19 travel restrictions were implemented, ports reacted by providing their own guidance’s on crew and third-party movement; as such, surveyors found it impossible to carry out PSC inspections or surveys in certain ports. The situation is constantly changing as restrictions ease and governments change policies, however, such inspections of vessels are paramount to maintaining maritime safety.

Flag states have found themselves in a tricky situation, as it is a Flag’s priority to ensure vessels remain compliant and safe – if surveys or inspections are unable to be carried out within the corresponding window of time then the vessel finds itself with grounds for detention. Flag states responded by providing extensions to inspections. Natasa Pilides, deputy minister Cyprus Shipping, specified that, in the case of the Cypriot flagged vessels, these are provided only on a short-term basis to ensure records are maintained and vessel safety isn’t compromised.

“Long or unlimited extensions that are not monitored by flags could result in increased risks of accidents and could threaten seafarers’ wellbeing,” said Pilides. The flag state has authorised the carrying out of inspections in Cyprus ports under safe conditions and in line with applicable health measures. For Cyprus flagged vessels not calling at ports in Cyprus, Pilides urges they arrange inspections as early as possible where practical.

COVID-19 restrictions on inspections has spurred an increased pivot towards digitalisation, Pilides confirmed.  “Under certain conditions, remote surveys and inspections in lieu of the onboard surveys and inspections are utilised,” She said. The benefits to prevent the spread of disease and overcome travel restrictions, with drones able to access port facilities, airport closures where surveyors cannot. Drones also offer the promise of cheaper inspections, as associated surveyor travel costs and accommodation will no longer be necessary.

Classification societies, such as Bureau Veritas and DNV GL, have been investing heavily in this technology. The use of drone in an inspection survey on a bulk carrier was deployed on 4 March, and increased remote survey demands have been reported during the pandemic. “The technology is there, and the governing bodies that define the regulations and best practices are dedicated to making the seas safe,” commented Waldfogel. “At the end of the day, it will be the same superintendents and surveyors- they will simply use drones and other sensors to collect and process the information.”

Some ship managers would also agree, Olav Nortun CEO Thome Group, believes that COVID-19 will affect marine superintendent travel immensely and is looking into the technology needed for the company to carry out its own ship audits. However, Schønberg maintains that despite the advantages, there are still benefits in people carrying out onboard inspections: “The disadvantages are that it is difficult to get the overview of how the ship is operated – the human element. It is more difficult to talk to the crew and officers. Interviews are an important part of our surveys – and we have all seen how difficult it is for people to speak up in Microsoft Team meetings.”