May 072008

This week sees the International; Maritime Organisation’s Maritime Safety Committee,MSC, meet to oversee the most extensive review of the Standard of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping, STCW, convention for a dozen years. Much has changed in those dozen years and the review will focus on manpower, training and development, and more generally the human resource issues affecting the industry, but will it reach on meaningful global standards and, most importantly, seafarer competency?

It is the last of those that will prove a difficult nut to crack in a organisation that must operate through consensus. Imperfect though it may be, the IMO has done much good in it’s 60 year existence but seafarer competency may be beyond its reach.

The MSC included competency standards in its mandated reviews to be carried out by the STW subcommittee headed by the Jamaica Maritime Authority’s Admiral Peter Brady, but what does it actually mean? And how do manning agents and shipowners avoid liability for lack of competence?

As with other STCW requirements, competency standards will be interpreted at the local level by national administrations who decide what the ‘standards’ mean, which makes ‘standards’ a sort of Tweedledum-Tweedledee word that means what one wants it to mean.

Competency is the ability to carry out a set task to a set standard safely. It isn’t whether or not one can successfully pass a written or oral examination, but on whether one can do the job safely.

Possession of a certificate does not imply competency – the ability to carry out a task to a set standard safely. Even if one is competent at the moment one receives the certificate, it doesn’t mean one is still competent six months or a year later. And completing a refresher course onshore doesn’t mean one is competent onboard ship. Even those firms in the business of providing training at onshore facilities and various training products agree as much.

What matters is competency assessment, and that can only be done in the place of work, where the task is being carried out. One only has to consider The Case Of The Silent Assassin in which the officers, and the men who died, were appropriately certificated but incompetent when it came to enclosed space entry and rescue procedures. It was a pretty harsh form of informal assessment and fatal to two seafarers. Therein lies the problem for the industry. If a seafarer is assessed on board for a task he is already carrying out, and found to be less than competent, then there is a liability issue if that seafarer is killed or injured or if the ship comes to grief. Anyone familiar with maritime accident reports knows that most fatalities occur because either the victim, or someone else onboard, is not competent to do the task they are set and the truth is that too many companies simply don’t want to know whether or not those who man their ships are competent or not because then they might become legally liable for knowingly putting incompetent seafarers in way of danger. Until that issue is resolved it is unlikely that workplace competency assessment will gain much of a foothold in the maritime industry. The MSC review will cover a lot of territory: ECDIS familiarisation and other relatively recent technologies, the special circumstances of short sea shipping and the offshore industry, LNG training and the introduction of mandatory alcohol limits during watchkeeping and other shipboard duties, all of which is much needed and welcome. It implicitly recognises the danger of already questionable ‘standards’ being further corroded as a result of the current manning shortages and says one of the aims of the review is to “ ensure that existing standards are not down?scaled and do not amend the articles of the Convention”.

Underlying all those fine efforts, of course, is a notional level of competency. Is the IMO’s MSC up to the challenge of introducing effective, onboard, assessment of competency? We’ll have to wait and see, but holding your breath is not recommended.

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