Safety barriers crucial for saving lives at sea

Øystein Goksøyr, head of department, safety advisory, DNV GL – Maritime

The most common causes of maritime incidents are known, but we must take a risk-based approach to safety to prevent major loss of life

To me, safety at sea is personal: out of six generations of maritime pilots, only my father and grandfather avoided a watery grave off the northwest coast of Norway. Having grown up in a family of seafarers, I worry about my relatives and friends when they are out at sea.

Although the number of casualties has declined in the last 20 years, in large part to technological and regulatory developments over the last 150 years, the average fatality rate per working hour in shipping is still significantly higher than in land-based industries. Unfortunately, major accidents with multiple fatalities still happen, such as the recent Stellar Daisy accident where 22 lives were lost at sea. Such events can and should be avoided, and a risk-based approach to safety is the way to achieve this.

The accident statistics in shipping indicate that only six types of accident account for 99% of all major accidents that result in fatalities; most serious are fire and explosion, followed by grounding and collision. All these accident scenarios are well known and are managed through existing regulations and safety-management systems, which indicates that major operational accidents occur because of a failure in existing safety barriers rather than unknown threats.

A safety barrier is typically put in place to prevent the occurrence of an undesirable event or to mitigate the consequences, and prevent it escalating into a major accident with loss of life. Examples include a fire detector emitting an alarm or a navigator detecting a warning signal. Typical failures of safety barriers include technical or human error, a malfunction of a fire detector, or misjudgement by a navigator caused by fatigue or time pressure. These examples are known failures in shipping, which can occur if safety barriers are not managed and monitored properly.

Safety barrier management is a proven approach in the offshore industry. Major stakeholders in the maritime industry, including DNV GL, are advocates of the application of safety barrier management to improve operational safety.
In recent years, DNV GL staff have used their knowledge in the offshore sector to develop barrier models for critical primary concerns in the maritime industry. Primary concerns are high-risk events that vary from one ship type to another. For example, two primary concerns in the cruise industry are fire in machinery spaces and compromised stability.

Safety barrier reporting has proven to be a very effective way to create a ‘risk picture’ for operators to better control their key safety risks and for measurement of trends and developments over time, including the effects of mitigating actions and safety campaigns. It can also give context to safety-related information from surveys and other sources. In our experience, annual ship surveys reporting on barrier models add significant value and safety insight compared with the traditional survey report format.

Barrier reporting for the cruise and offshore sector is now implemented in our class production system and development is in progress for other ship segments. Demanding environmental regulations and new technologies means we must bring safety back to the fore, something that DNV GL’s Maritime CEO Knut Ørbeck-Nilssen is calling for, including through the development of holistic regulations with safety at the core. Although this may represent a challenge for the IMO and the classification societies, because of our industry’s predominantly prescriptive regulations, a risk-based approach that considers human, organisational, and technical factors will be a prerequisite for effective implementation of safety barrier management.

Developing risk-based regulations and applying barrier management inspired by other industries will arguably contribute to an enhanced safety level. It also sets up alerts to onshore management teams about degraded barriers and prompts earlier remedial action. So, let us do it now and not wait until the next major accident in shipping happens.