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Crews Control – Seaworthiness and the Human Element
This was the interesting title of a talk given to the branch in March by Ron Clark MNI, Admiralty Manager at Reed Smith Richards Butler in Hong Kong.
Although best known for his legal prowess, Ron is a Master Mariner and former UK government surveyor with wide experience. He began his legal career in 1993 and first came to Hong Kong with Richards Butler in 2008.
Such is the relevance of the topic and the reputation of the speaker that 45 people booked to hear him and more than 60 turned up!
Ron began with a brief recap of some recent examples of the role the human element in cases handled by his firm:
·        a murder following quarrels on board, where alcohol played a part
·        a violent assault which left a senior officer paralysed
·        suicides preceded by unusual behaviour or poor performance
·        casualties where fatigue and stress have led to flawed decision-making
He also described a grounding following an incident involving a crew member who suffered a serious medical episode which led to him attacking one colleague before causing extensive damage to the engine room systems that led to a loss of power to the vessel.
Ron then gave a definition of seaworthiness:
A ship will be deemed seaworthy if she is in a reasonably fit state as to repairs, equipment, crew and all other respects to encounter the ordinary perils of the voyage [insured] at the time of sailing
He also reminded us of the ‘prudent owner’ test – if a defect existed, would a prudent owner have required that it be made good before departure if he knew about it? If he would, then the ship was unseaworthy.
Seaworthiness is a flexible concept which does not only apply to the vessel’s physical condition, but can include cargo worthiness, proper documentation and correct manning.  Negligence is subjected to the ‘reasonable man’ test; has performance fallen below the expected standard required of that particular crew member? Competence, on the other hand, considers whether his or her skill level reaches that which should be reasonably expected for a person holding the rank. The distinction was demonstrated using the example of the Eurasian Dream, where a fire on a vehicle carrier resulted in the court finding that the Master and crew were ignorant of the hazards when carrying cars. It was held that the fire would not have broken out if the crew had been properly instructed and trained. The failure to contain the fire led to a total loss of the ship and cargo, and a finding that incompetence rendered the vessel unseaworthy.
The definition of seaworthiness can change over time, and will be judged by the standards prevailing at the time and relative to the state of knowledge at the time. The judge’s approach in the Eurasian Dream illustrated how the mental health of a seafarer can impact on his or her competence and, as a consequence, on the vessel’s seaworthiness.
Turning to fatigue, Ron pointed out the differences between short-term sleepiness (as a result, perhaps, of a night on the tiles) and long-term fatigue. Fatigue is insidious, persists over time, and can lead to both physical and mental malaise. Irritability and poor decision-making are just two of the likely outcomes.
Stress is a fish of a different colour, and can be brought on by increased workload, poor management support, the risk of piracy and criminalisation, social isolation, harassment and bullying, among other things. It can cause anxiety, insomnia, fatigue and cardiovascular disorders and can lead to substance abuse. As with fatigue, there is an increased risk of accidents.
Ship-owners and insurers obviously face exposure to losses arising from unseaworthiness due to incompetence, and positive action is needed to ensure crews are able to cope with the mental challenges they face at sea. Preventative measures include awareness on the part of owners, adherence to STCW and MLC requirements on hours of work, proper manning and Fatigue Risk Management Systems (FRMS).
FRMS are well-established in other modes of transport but, as usual, shipping has been slow to adopt them and a change of culture is required. Our industry needs to eliminate the social stigma surrounding fatigue and increase awareness training. Data should be collected, and ships should be audited specifically for signs of fatigue.
Regarding stress, Ron pointed out that we do not think it affects us, but we are wrong. Typical causes include long voyages, social isolation, short turnaround times, bullying and multicultural crews, and stress can result in reduced work performance, increased sickness and absence from duty.
There are now some good online programmes to help seafarers cope with stress, which is one argument for providing on board internet access. An amendment to the MLC is due to enter into force in December 2018 which will require companies to have a written policy statement on the issue of harassment and bullying and to promote awareness both aboard and ashore. Guidance must be displayed on board.
A lively question and answer session followed, and among the points which came out were:
·        a certificate is no longer, by itself, an effective way of demonstrating competency. A more holistic approach involving, for example,  an assessment of fatigue and stress is now required
·        Some short-sea operators claim sleepiness and fatigue are not linked, although the congregation disagreed. This led to a discussion about the difficulty of identifying fatigue and recent research into new watch keeping systems. The new IMO guidelines on fatigue are awaited with interest.
Counselling over the inernet is all very well, but internet access can increase stress when seafarers are bombarded by news of domestic disaster at home. Nonetheless, it was accepted that

·        modern crews expect and demand access. One participant suggested having ‘internet cafes’ on board so people cannot hide in their cabins whilst accessing the internet
·        Some attendees asserted that ships which have dropped anchor to give the crew time to rest have not been put off hire as a result
·        Minimum Safe Manning certificates are less than perfect. Perhaps it is time to consider a better way of deciding manning levels
By this time the food was getting cold, but the discussions continued informally long into the evening. We are grateful to Ron Clark for a superb presentation and to Reed Smith Richards Butler for sponsoring the event.
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15 June 2024
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