A moral minimum

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Tanya Blake, SAS editor. Credit: IHS Markit

All maritime players should adhere to regulation, but good companies should raise the safety bar even higher

As an industry, we are used to regulation driving our safety focus. Yet, it is worth remembering that this is only effective when these standards are enforced and there are penalties imposed on those flouting them. As evidenced by IHS Markit data on Port State Control (PSC) inspections from 2014–18, a 4% increase in the number of inspections correlated with a 20% decrease in the total number of detentions in the same time period. A reasonable assumption to draw is when faced with greater oversight and threat of being caught out for flouting the rules, more crews and owners were compliant and safe.

Strong enforcement of regulations is also vital to draw the line between good players and repeat offenders, as in shipping a good reputation is built, in part, on consistent compliance. However, it is worth questioning the strength of this division; complying with regulations is something that companies are required to do rather than something that they should be celebrated for. After all, regulations just levels the playing field to weed out bad behaviour, whether it is about how crew are treated, how safety inspections are conducted, or what equipment is fit for purpose. It is a minimum set of conditions under which it is acceptable to operate, which is why “good” companies should be striving to do more.

In fact, regulations should be seen as a moral minimum. To paraphrase Paul Ward, director of cyber security, Wärtsilä, speaking at the Safety at Sea State of Maritime Safety roundtable on 23 October, we must stop accepting things in shipping as simply the way the industry works, otherwise we become complicit in a potentially imperfect or broken system. Instead of accepting the status quo, we must create better systems to be a more responsive and a responsible industry.

One way to affect change is by shining a spotlight on companies with poor safety records, that flout regulations, and ignore their workers’ rights. We must call out companies that regularly abandon crew and ask tough questions of companies with a high frequency of accidents. We must challenge the status quo and rebuild the system before it crumbles under external pressure from a public that is slowly becoming more aware of us as a sector.

The entrenched view that shipping is ‘invisible’ to the general public, unaware of the vast amount of goods they rely on being transported by sea, makes us feel that our industry’s practices, good or bad, go unnoticed too. When working well, our industry often does go unnoticed, but it is splashed across international headlines when there is a major incident, resulting in significant loss of life, risk to passengers, or disruption of service. This is particularly true if the incident is relatable to the general public or visible in person, videos, or photographs, such as the Costa Concordia, which grounded off the Italian coast in 2012 or the Viking Sky cruise ship that experienced engine failure and had to be evacuated. By contrast, a merchant ship that sinks with all lives lost is less likely to make headline news outside of the shipping press. Out of sight, out of mind.

Perhaps it is good that the public focus on holding industries responsible for their emissions is pulling away shipping’s mask of invisibility. The average consumer is also more mindful of the ethical and moral implications of the products they use, how they were made, and who may have been taken advantage of or suffered in the process. Furthermore, crew are turning to social media to name and shame bad employers. As DNV GL’s Peter Hoffman said at the roundtable, shipping should stay ahead of public sentiment. With a more ethically savvy consumer base, shipping must decide now whether it moves with the times or becomes the next big persona non grata in the court of public opinion. Perhaps the time has come for us to put ethics before profit.

SAS will publish its full findings and analysis of IHS Markit contemporary maritime safety data, alongside comment from key players in maritime and safety experts, in the State of Maritime Safety report, sponsored by DNV GL, which will be made available in early 2020.