Willfull blindness towards shipboard fires

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Tanya Blake SAS Editor. Credit: IHS Markit

With the spate of ship fires in early 2019, it is time for shipping to act to stamp out the risk of dangerous goods and misdeclared cargo

In the first five months of 2019, there has been a spike in major ship fires, which claimed two Grimaldi container ro-ro vessels, Grande America and Grande Europa. The most recent, a fire aboard KMTC HongKong at the Thailand port of Laem Chabang, carrying 18 containers with chlorinated calcium hypochlorite, has injured up to 200 people.

Such ship fires, while even with this year’s uptick, are not the most common safety incident, when they do occur, are arguably one of the most devastating. Shipboard fires pose a major threat to life, vessel, and cargo, not to mention the potential environmental impact such an event can have too. The cost to owners is enormous, and for crews’ families, immeasurable.

The most recent incident aboard KMTC HongKong involving chlorinated calcium hypochlorite drives home the continued risk of dangerous goods, not to mention the greater risk of misdeclared dangerous cargo that shipping faces. Such a practice is done in a bid to skirt hazardous cargo-handling premiums and in my opinion, is one of the most deplorable acts of putting profit above life that I have come across in the maritime industry.

Such misinformation means that crew unwittingly stow boxes unsafely and cargos liable to react and explode are accidentally stowed in close proximity to one another. Furtheremore, if an explosion occurs, firefighting systems may not be effective against the misdeclared chemicals, placing crew at further risk when a fire breaks out.

Container lines are taking steps to create better visibility of cargo and manage the risks. For example, with projects such as Cargo Incident Notification System (CINS).

However, there needs to be a greater emphasis and pressure put on the problem across the entire supply chain to identify where misdeclaration begins and improve the process.
This is something that the transport and logistics insurer TT Club is doing its part on, with its work examining charcoal supply chain in certain parts of the globe. It has then been reaching out to shippers of charcoal to help them understand the risks of misdeclaration and influence behaviours.

It will be of great interest to watch the results of this project. Owners are in a powerful position and can challenge unsafe and nefarious behaviours when identified in their supply chain. Ending contracts or refusing to do business with those in their supply chain until the issues are wiped out, will make it less attractive and lucrative to break the rules.

I, for one, agree that a ship fires industry body should be created to support owners to tackle the issue, as law firm HFW has proposed. Such a body, HFW have said, will ensure a consistent approach across shipping to identifying dangerous goods, and that they are correctly declared and carried.

As Alex Kemp, partner at HFW’s global shipping practice stated in an April 2019 SAS article on misdeclared goods, an industry-wide body could work with stakeholders across the container supply chain to ensure compliance with existing guidelines. This would include shippers, terminals, freight forwarders, and carriers.

Whatever approach shipping takes, what is certain is that it is a pressing issue and one we should not accept as part of the normal risk of transporting goods. Turning a blind eye to the roots of cargo fires is no longer a viable approach, particularly when faced with the frequency of devastating cargo fires and loss of life we are currently witnessing.