Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Seafarer working hours close to slavery, says UK’s MAIB

London February 24 The maritime industry in the UK was abuzz after the MAIB (the UK Marine Accident Investigation Branch) report on the grounding of the “Antari” was made public. The report has rebuked the International Maritime Organisation for not addressing the longstanding problem of maritime fatigue; in fact, it has recommended that the UK government take unilateral action in addressing this issue.

Besides industry channels like Lloyds List, the report was also widely quoted in mainstream newspapers and the BBC, with The Telegraph headline “Exhausted Sailors working 98 hour weeks” saying it all. The lead to the article goes on to quote the MAIB, “Exhausted sailors are regularly falling asleep at the helm, turning their ships into "unguided missiles" which could cause a major disaster off the UK coast.”

The Antari grounded off the Antrim coast of Northern Ireland in June 2008 because the officer on watch fell asleep and remained asleep even as the ship ran aground. Calling the accident part of “a continuing and unacceptable trend”, the MAIB says there was no lookout on the bridge at the time of the incident. The officer fell asleep in his chair on the starboard side of the wheelhouse, in front of one of the radar sets.

The MAIB investigation further revealed that the officer had been working six hours on, six hours off for the previous three and a half months, probably in addition to other duties. He was alone on the bridge at the time, and fell asleep for three hours. The Antari was carrying more than 2300 tonnes of scrap when she ran aground. Nearly three quarters of the hull was damaged and dented, and the bottom ruptured.

The MAIB confirms that, contrary to international requirements, no lookout is provided on many ships at night, leaving the officer of the watch alone on a six hour watch. Given the number of accidents that had occurred with officers falling asleep, it was possible to extrapolate that there were more unreported incidents of ships sailing in UK waters with no one awake onboard, the report continued. “It can only be a matter of time before these ‘unguided missiles’ cause a catastrophic accident,” concluded the MAIB.Stephen Meyer, chief inspector of the MAIB, said that seafarer shift patterns were "as close to slavery that we have in the UK. People are working 98 hour weeks, week after week, and they do not have a single night's sleep in that time. They never get more than five hours and the cumulative effect is enormous."

Five years ago, in a 2004 safety report, the MAIB had said that minimal crewing leading to unacceptable levels of fatigue in bridge watch keepers needed to be addressed urgently by the IMO. It now says, “The IMO has failed to address this issue satisfactorily”. The MAIB has taken the “exceptional step of recommending that the UK administration takes unilateral action to ensure the safety of shipping within UK waters and to protect the environment”.

Going further, the MAIB said that, “In the five years since that earlier report, there have been no changes to international standards or requirements to address this issue and similar accidents continue to occur.” The IMO, in turn, confirmed that the UK had submitted a proposal to MSC 84 in 2007 “to the effect that, through amendment of Solas regulation V/14, an auditable procedure for establishing vessels’ safe manning levels should be introduced”.

The MAIB now wants the UK Government to put pressure on the IMO to urgently address the issue of fatigue and manning on board ships. Meanwhile, the MAIB has asked the UK Department of Transport and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to increase inspections on ships believed to be undermanned.

Mr. Meyer said that in the last few years, the MAIB has investigated nine other groundings. In six of these, the officer on watch fell asleep.


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