Jan 282011

Lifeboat manufacturer Schatt-Harding’s recent statement that the IMO and some parts of the shipping industry need to move more quickly to a consensus on vital lifeboat safety issues which have important consequences for the safety of seafarers is a welcome sign that at least part of a safety-critical industry understands that it has a credibility problem and that It is time to get its act together is welcome. Whether not it indicates that a key supplier of LSA is breaking from the pack is another question.

Schatt-Harding cerainly has good reason to want the new SOLAS requirements in place: Its new Seacure hooks are intended to met the new regulations and sales are likely to be limited until the new measures are mandatory. The company may have been as disappointed at the deliberate delay in introducing those regulations as most of the industry was.

To put it into context, ILAMA, the LSA manfacturer’s protection organisation, says that 90 per cent of on-load hooks on the market today would fail stability tests recommended by an industry-wide engineering study. It is probably safe to say that Seacure hooks would pass that test and approval of the new regulations would enable the company to get a return on its investment, which is not unreasonable.
David Bradley, vice president operations, Schat-Harding Service says, “Good things are worth waiting for. But there is such a thing as waiting too long. The IMO debate over lifeboat hooks has gone on for too long. Seafarers deserve better. They deserve clear standards for lifeboat hooks and a clear timetable for replacing those which don’t meet the new standards. That will ensure their safety and renew their confidence in their boats. A lack of agreement at IMO by some industry bodies and flag states has pushed back consensus on this vital topic, and it could be two years or more before we have a properly agreed amendment to SOLAS for lifeboat hooks.”

According to Bradley there is a broad consensus that the current standards set by IMO for on-load release hooks have failed seafarers. “It is time for a new generation of hooks, and the fact is that hooks are available which meet all the proposed regulatory requirements,” says Bradley. “But shipyards won’t specify them and owners will not rush to replace existing hooks while they still meet regulations, despite the well-known risks to seafarers. Draft guidelines to ensure that on-load release mechanisms for lifeboats are replaced by those complying with new, stricter safety standards under SOLAS were discussed in February 2010 by the IMO Sub-Committee on Ship Design and Equipment (DE 53). But no agreement was reached. Similarly, no consensus was achieved at the 87th session of the Maritime Safety Committee in May 2010. There are good draft standards on the table but no consensus to turn them into regulations and the issue has again been referred back for further work to the IMO subcommittee on ship design and equipment. This will take place in March this year, and the findings taken in May 2011 to the 89th session of the MSC. That is unlikely to be the end of the story unless we see a move towards consensus by all parties. We hope that following the MSC 89 meeting in May we will have guidelines in place which will provide some clarity and consistency going forward. And we hope that the date now set as a target for introducing new SOLAS standards, 1st July, 2014, can be brought forward in the interests of safety.”

IMO is driven by consensus, rather like membership of the Freemasons. It is the blackballs who control what is approved not the majority whiteballs. Some lifeboat hook makers are owned by the flag-states represented in IMO, other are part of powerful corporations like Korea’s chaebols with tremendous influence on their flag states.

This makes decision-making slow, ponderus and re-active rather than pro-active. Given the brutality of realpolitik it is unlikely that we will ever have anything better. And the fact is that it is probably the only way for an organisation like the IMO to exist – and once it does get traction it does move forward.

The test for Schatt-Harding in the coming year will be to decide who it will align with: the remarkable alliance of seafarers unions, shipowners, P&I Clubs, the majority of flag states and others which is pushing for change or with the rather grubby alliance of industry associations, or at east one industry association, and minority flag states that is fighting to delay the introduction of safer hooks in the interests of corporate profit and cash in private pockets.

While Schatt-Harding says:”…we are just one manufacturer and the shipping industry as a whole needs a consensus to put seafarers’ safety first and get new standards in place” it is a potentially major force with executives serving key roles in its industry bodies .

This particular pudding will be judged by the eating.

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