The maritime industry has constantly improved its safety record throughout history. All statistics reveal that life at sea today is safer than 50, 20, or even 10 years ago. However, reading the maritime press and social media, it often seems to paint a picture of the maritime world as disastrous, with many of the reports blaming seafarers as the cause of all accidents. This is unfair, particularly when you consider how seafarers have had to adapt to massive changes in the maritime world while helping to reduce accidents. It is time they were recognised for this.
Let us look at just some of the changes in shipping over the past 40 years that have had an impact on the lives of seafarers: the apparent doubling of ship sizes every decade; shorter turnaround time in ports; and the development of an industry of policing through port state inspection, vetting, inspections, and auditors.
Meanwhile, the seafarer has learnt to use a number of technologies, controlling sophisticated electronic engines from a single computer screen and navigating using GPS, AIS, and ECDIS, not to mention coping with the threefold increase in traffic.
Regulation must also be contended with. There has been more regulation passed in the past 20 years than in the preceding 40 years. A master today has to cope and comply with more than 5,000 pages of regulation – and that excludes the regional regulations of countries such as the United States.
With the introduction of cheaper telephone calls and email there is also a demand for constant reporting, increased paperwork, and shore-based people trying to operate ships from their desks. The authority of the master has steadily eroded despite the fact that the International Safety Management Code expressly gives the master overriding authority.
Every injury, every pump breakdown, every burst hose, and every near miss is reported in this day and age, corrective actions taken, and analysis of trends carried out. This is a far cry from when one reported to the office every two days and only spoke about major issues.
We need to respect our seafarers, applaud their success in reducing accidents, and recognise that they too would like to achieve zero injuries, zero pollution, zero losses to property or profits, and zero damage to cargo or ship. The need of the day is to avoid the “them and us” divide between seafarers and shore staff.
It must be accepted that the seafarers operate the ships and the duty of the shore staff is to support them with resources, empathy, and a healthy and safe working environment. Safety at sea will constantly improve as long as we look after our seafarers.