The British Maritime and Coastguard Agency has sent out a tough warning to shipowners and crews that it will henceforth be examining mariner fatigue issues very closely and will take stern action if necessary. The MCA statement, emphasising that defaulters may well face legal action, is seen as part of a continuing drive by the UK regulatory authority to enforce compliance of the STCW regulations as they pertain to seafarer working hours.
Seafarer fatigue is well known to be the root cause of many accidents at sea. The MCA says its inspections will check safety standards and that it will not hesitate to take enforcement action where necessary. “Anyone found failing to meet safety standards can expect the Agency to take prompt and tough action,” the agency says. MCA Assistant Director of seafarers and ships Paul Coley is blunt. "It has been known for many years that tiredness caused by long working hours and low crewing is dangerous to both ships and its crews”.
The MCA statement should not be a bolt from the blue for the industry: the organisation has been in the forefront of highlighting seafarer fatigue issues, especially in areas around the British Isles. The MCA had mounted a concerted campaign to examine working hours on board fishing vessels in the middle of last year; it had then stated that it would emphasise enforcement of working time regulations, seek international recognition of the problem of fatigue at sea and ‘seek a cultural shift over the longer term so that excessive working hours would be no longer acceptable”.
The latest move will see all ships visiting the UK being subject to closer scrutiny, whether British or foreign. Interestingly, the MCA statement pointedly refers to short sea trade vessels running with sometimes very small crews, quite common in Europe: they will face ‘redoubled scrutiny’. The regulatory authority says that its surveyors will closely examine records of watch keeping and other working hours aboard all vessels that fall under their purview. They will verify accuracy of these records, matching them to times of previous port calls and work patterns. If there is not enough time for detailed scrutiny while MCA officials are aboard a vessel, surveyors will ask for copies of the documents they require, especially documents that pertain to the operating pattern of the ship.
The MCA says that it will also examine evidence of the shipmanager’s audit of crew working hour regulations, move analysts feel is clearly intended to put shore offices under the MCA regulatory microscope: the absence of such evidence may clearly indicate a contravention of the ISM rules and stated company procedures. The MCA says that it will be also looking into SMS systems and DOC and SMC audits where they apply to working hours. In addition, MCA officials will ensure that vessels in British waters use dedicated lookouts at night.
Says Coley unequivocally, "The MCA is determined to stamp out excess hours in UK waters, and so significant breaches of the regulations will be reported to our enforcement unit and may result in prosecution."
"Shipping companies have been warned about the consequences of fatigue many times. This time it is not just a warning”.