Maintaining a safety-first approach during COVID-19

Martin Crawford-Brunt, CEO RightShip. Credit: RightShip

The global economy and the shipping industry have faced their fair share of shocks and pressures in recent years. However, none have been as unprecedented and severe as the COVID-19 pandemic, which is truly stretching the world – and our sector – to its limit. 

The ways in which the commercial impact is being felt throughout shipping varies, as sectors have been hit in different ways. As a critical component of the global economy, there are some worrying forecasts on the horizon. Clarksons Research is predicting that the global shipping industry could see the biggest decline in seaborne trade in 35 years, with a 5% shrink expected throughout 2020.

At the same time, however uncomfortable the outlook for the global economy, the shipping industry has been playing an important part in supporting vital supply chains. In particular, the efforts of the thousands of seafarers and maritime workers – a key and yet largely invisible link in the chain that ensures shelves are stocked and food is on our tables – needs to be recognised by society more broadly and we all have a role in getting this message across now.

The pandemic has once again revealed that our mariner community is largely invisible, but not invulnerable, and this crisis is having an acute impact on them. The latest Seafarers Happiness Index, published in early May 2020, reveals that mariners are experiencing extraordinary fatigue and burnout. One of the key reasons for this is the ongoing challenge of carrying out crew changes safely under COVID-19 resulting in the postponement of needed relief though crew changes. 

This a complex issue to resolve and there is no easy answer to this given the many parties involved and that everyone in the chain has a role to play. For example, the IMO and industry associations like the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) and BIMCO are working directly with governments and local authorities around the world to facilitate safe crew changes.

Over the last decade, we have seen the improvements brought about through a shared approach to safety and risk mitigation, which has resulted in a reduction of major vessel casualties over the years. However, continuous focus and effort is required to reduce and eliminate all casualties as there is opportunity to improve further. This crisis is placing an unexpected strain on the structures and regulatory framework that our industry has relied on for decades to deliver safer shipping for society.

Navigating the current crisis while ensuring a continued robust approach to safety is a difficult balancing act for the global shipping industry. For the sake of our seafarers, their families, and all supporting our sector throughout this global human emergency, we cannot let our safety standards slip now. We need to ensure we are not merely “kicking the can down the road” and storing up new safety challenges for the future. The lingering commercial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic must not result in safety becoming a victim of our attempts to save cost by adopting shortcuts now.

All parties in the safety chain must remain vigilant to ensure that pragmatism and common sense does not give way to excessive leniency which in turn elevates the safety risk. The safety of the inspector and crew must be protected in line with public health guidance and is a top priority for pre-inspection risk assessments. As a result of our own updated risk assessments, we have seen a high number of inspections be relocated to safer locations. Furthermore, in line with public health advice, we are making sure that inspectors have access to adequate personal and protective equipment and that they work with the crew to follow any new and updated COVID-19 safety procedures on board. Finally, we are trialling a new process to evaluate inspection extension requests using a risk-based methodology that can ensure ships continue to operate with a valid inspection that still mitigates safety risks.

Shipping has a lot to be proud of, and at the end of this crisis, we want to be able to rightly say that as in industry we stepped up and played our part in supporting the global effort to beat COVID-19.