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Why it’s time to pull maritime safety out of the dark ages

THE key safety issue facing maritime is how a traditionally change-resistant industry can harness the benefits of advanced technology that is evolving at a rapid pace. In a fascinating webinar hosted by Lloyd’s List, Transas CEO Frank Coles, Lloyd’s Register’s VP Innovation Maurizio Pilu, and Tony Browne, lecturer and trainer, agreed that the focus of the new technology should be supporting the ship master’s decisions rather than piling further demands on his time and resources.

“Technology should not be seen as a way to replace people”
Tony Browne, Editor LMA Level 5 Diploma in Management and Leadership

The number of hours being worked by seafarers has become a safety concern across maritime. This is only partly a function of the weight of administrative tasks expected of the crew. So far, new technology has rarely been used to address this concern; more often it is merely adding to the problem.

“On the one side,” said Frank Coles, “we are ramming technology down seafarers’ throats, while at the same time loading administrative tools on top of them. It’s small wonder that 80% of problems come from human error.” That’s not an acceptable risk in the aviation and nuclear sectors, he added, so why it is acceptable in maritime?

Tony Browne was greatly concerned by “human frailty, fatigue, and lack of management skills at sea.” The culture is changing, he said, albeit ponderously. “There was a time when reporting an incident to a designated person ashore would lead to a sucking of teeth, but seafarers will no longer be drummed out of the industry for raising safety concerns.” Technology is an aid. “Training on each piece of new equipment must be sharper, however technology should not be seen as a way to replace people.”

Maurizio Pilu believed the answer lies in understanding what’s happening outside maritime. In the health care and social care sectors technology, when used correctly, can promote safety “to take away the little things that humans get wrong because they are human.” The British government is watching what Amazon is doing to rethink cross-border trade. “The technology is available [for paperwork issues],” he said. “We need to change the way we work.”

“The aim is to understand how technological development will change public policy and legislation”
Maurizio Pilu, VP of Innovation, Lloyd's Register


In the short term, there might have to be administration staff placed on board ship to cover additional reporting and monitoring because, Frank Coles said, “you can’t change a culture overnight [but] I don’t think admin staff would solve the problem in the long term.” He believed technology brings problems of its own, such as lack of standardisation. “There are 60 different ECDIS systems available. Half the crew don’t know how to use the system on board. We need standardisation right from the design stage.”

The industry must stop thinking of technology as a way to cut costs, and regard it as a way to become more efficient, more secure and safer. All three speakers agreed that closer collaboration between ship and shore, and removing burdens that can be done ashore would bring safety dividends. “As technology gets better, maritime manpower can be employed to look at data and make better judgements,” said Browne. He observed that, in his experience, “certain managers from the engineering side of the business are very good at analysing data but are not so good at the human factor. It’s the meeting of technology and people that’s the real challenge.”

How to change an entrenched maritime culture lies at the heart of this discussion. Closer collaboration between ship and shore is regarded as heresy by the old-timers, said Coles. For them, the master has always been the ultimate decision-taker, so a form of collaboration that insists that voyage plans being prepared ashore and discussed with the master might raise hackles. The new business model advocated by Coles would involve not only embracing new technology but also embracing a new culture.

The same issues come up with cyber security, he added. “You can put as many secure software packages [approved by BIMCO, the ICS, or class] on a ship as you like, but if you don’t change the culture of the crew and the culture of the office, in terms of the right way to behave in a connected world, then more than 50% of cyber issues will still come from human error.”

Tony Browne agreed there’s a difference in culture between ship and shore, and observed that the way to bridge the gap between them is to support the human interaction between masters coming ashore after months at sea, and spending valuable time alongside the team ashore. “The interaction there breaks down barriers and creates an attitude of trust.”

For Maurizio Pilu, the essence is how to improve performance without compromising safety. Lloyd’s Register Foundation, a charity, is talking to communities of innovators, working to improve safety one project at a time. However, while Tony Browne accepts that seafarers are willing to embrace change early in their careers, superintendents wait for technology to prove itself. Once that is done, “I don’t see any problem with the industry changing.”


IMO is full of “endless useless committees managed by people who have no interest in changing”
Frank Coles, CEO, Transas


Finally, the speakers turned to the tension between policy-makers and technology-leaders. “The intentions of the International Maritime Organization are solid,” said Coles, however “unfortunately the method and structure can’t keep up because it takes five years for a paragraph of safety to make it from A to B.” He said even he, as CEO of a technology company, can’t keep up, so IMO has no chance. Coles blasted “endless useless committees managed by people who have no interest in changing.”

One way forward, in his view, is either through developing technology that still fits within the restrictions of the rules being developed by regulators but enables forward-thinking owners to start using that technology in a more advanced way. Another is to follow what is being done in Scandinavia and Singapore, which are advanced in their thinking about technology.

Tony Browne said the problem for IMO and national governments is that they follow developments in the industry, they don’t lead it. “What we are asking for is more proactive policing rather than a legislature. We want the freedom to move forward, for the IMO to be quicker to respond to what the public is doing. Perhaps,” he suggested, “we need a sub-agency, a technology agency to look ahead and to harness the changes happening.” Another way might be to issue exemptions to companies that are known to be experimenting where it’s felt they are looking for best practice.

Once again, Maurizio Pilu went outside maritime to seek solutions. “I see cases emerging across the world of governments and policy-makers trying different ways of stimulating innovation, and becoming market-makers rather than market-rulers. In the complicated autonomous car sector – where technology is new, and there are safety and insurance problems – the UK departments of transport and business have seconded experts to a tech venture that will stay close to policy makers.

“The aim,” he said, “is to understand how technological development will change public policy and legislation. Industry, civil society, and regulators are coming together to tackle this. So nothing should prevent IMO experimenting; this sort of project can work,” Pilu concluded.

Although drawn from different segments of the maritime world, the three speakers concurred that technology on its own is insufficient to improve levels of safety. Cross-sectoral collaboration, training that embraces the problems to be solved not just the capabilities of a piece of kit, and an openness at every level of the business to the urgent need to change culture are the ingredients in any drive to put safety back where it belongs – first.

Listen to the Safety Webinar OnDemand here.


Click here to register your interest in a workshop in London on Safety Innovation, part of Lloyd's Register's Safety Accelerator campaign.


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