Captain’s Corner: The Evolution of Safety

A tender and his diver
A tender and his diver
A tender and his diver finish pre-dive preparations and make final safety and communication checks before the diver enters the water. Photo courtesy of Global Diving.

In general, as a society we like to believe we have evolved, and are continually evolving, to make the world a smarter, safer and overall better place.

Technology has taken us to unimaginable heights to make tasks easier, more efficient and hopefully safer. New cars are well equipped with a massive amount of safety tech devices from lane-departing alarms to blind-spot indicator warnings and a host of other innovations that alert the driver and try to mitigate human error as much as possible.

The trucking industry has electronic logbooks for drivers that record distance and working hours along with highway checkpoints to ensure compliance and make our roads safer by preventing drivers from overextending themselves and suffering fatigue. Gone are the days of long-haul truckers operating on little to no sleep and relying on caffeine and other stimulants to cover as many miles as possible in the shortest amount of time.

The aviation industry would seem to be a model of using technology to protect aircraft while making safety a priority. I have friends and family members who are commercial passenger and cargo airline captains for major players in the industry, and we often talk shop comparing our respective trades and how things differ.

One of the major standouts to me is the respect for the rules in aviation. If a pilot’s work/rest hours are up, there is no discussion about pushing the envelope. The pilot simply alerts management and a standby or reserve pilot is brought in for relief or other arrangements are made.

At no time is it even a thought to compromise the rules set forth by the FAA and compromise the safety of the passengers or operation. Everyone understands the stakes are high and safety is not placed before profit. I wish this were true in the maritime trade.

There are many companies adamant about following regulations for a mariner’s work/rest schedule. There are many who will threaten and coerce a mariner (especially the Master) to push past the hours allowed to be worked in a given window of time. The fact is, no one really knows how much a sailor is working except for the crews themselves and the official logbook reflects only the hours and information that a human puts into it.

The only time it really gets scrutinized is in the unfortunate event of an accident or injury, and as we know, at that time, it is too late. Many people over the years have expressed to me that the maritime industry is always late to the party when it comes to making changes and keeping up with the times. I would have to agree, although I can’t understand fully why this is.

There are quite a few safety-related issues that seem to be consistent topics on the commercial waterfront. We could have a list a mile long, but the main issues that mariners continue to address are the long working hours, lack of continuous rest, smaller crews and less company-provided training on equipment.

Regarding the long working hours and sleep loss, countless studies have shown us that lack of quality sleep is a real danger. Experts have compared lack of sleep to being relatively as dangerous as working under the influence of alcohol. Statistics show us that injuries and accidents increase a substantial amount when crews are sleep deprived. Yes, there are U.S. Coast Guard-mandated rest rules, but often they are ignored or fudged to keep up with the demands of the operation. The problem is further fueled as smaller crews aboard vessels perform the same amount of work that used to be a larger crew’s responsibility.

Everyone from cook to captain has increased duties and it pushes them to their respective capacity each day. There is only so much that can be done in a day, yet it is commonplace for seamen to work off their normally scheduled watch just to keep up.

I was once sailing second mate on an ocean-going tug and overheard the Master tell the chief mate: “Twenty years ago if I would have walked up here on this bridge and saw you on the computer during your watch, I would have fired you. Now, if I come up here, and you aren’t on that computer, I’ll fire you!”

It was very much said in a playful and joking manner, but everyone understood how duties have changed drastically to include mountains of administrative responsibilities on top of the normal assigned day work. We all laughed it off and thought it was funny, but it had a very serious undertone. We all could relate.

Another personal example I could relate to would be the downsizing of crews. When I first began working on tugs in the Port of Miami performing harbor-assist work, a normal-sized crew would be four, or possibly more: a captain, engineer and two deckhands or some similar arrangement. In recent years, while performing ship-assist work in the Pacific, it was standard to only have a captain and an engineer.

Put that into perspective: a two-person crew, on a 5,000 horsepower tug to assist a roughly 900-foot container ship. It can be done safely in most cases, but when an emergency or mechanical failure arises is when you run into a very serious problem.

What if there is a fire? What if the engineer on deck gets injured or has a medical emergency or goes overboard? The master cannot safely leave the wheelhouse and retrieve them or tend to them, especially when still tethered to another vessel. What if the winch breaks while the hawser or headline is laid out anywhere from 50 to 200 feet and the heavy water-soaked line must be retrieved by hand, by one crew person? I can tell you from firsthand experience it is nearly impossible.

The references above are only a few of the many safety-related issues mariners of today are dealing with. Make no mistake, we have made great strides in our industry pertaining to safety. I’ll be the first to admit that today’s commercial shipping industry is far safer than when I first came into the industry, and I appreciate that tremendously.

But we are stagnant in many areas of safety and moving astern in others. As a solution, I hope we can take a commonsense approach and find mutually acceptable resolutions that not only work for the seaman, but the vessel operators and the USCG as well. I certainly believe we can manage that.

Aloha, Capt. Michael Anderson Jr.

Capt. Michael Anderson Jr. is the Regional Director of the Inlandboatmen’s  Union of the Pacific, Hawai’i Region. He has worked in the commercial maritime industry most of his career both domestically and abroad, most recently sailing as captain on harbor tugs performing vessel assist duties. He resides in Honolulu, Hawaii with his wife Julia and infant daughter.