Comment: How maritime tragedy shaped safety regulations

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Scotland is unfortunately no stranger to maritime tragedy and it is poignant that the inaugural Maritime Safety Week has followed immediately after the 30th anniversary of the Piper Alpha tragedy in which 167 men died.

Maritime minister Nusrat Ghani, who this week (9 July) launched the initiative, said that since taking over the Department of Transport role she has been surprised by the sheer size and scope of the maritime sector. I would guess she would not be alone in underestimating its scale and importance.

“Safety is absolutely critical to underpinning success at every level and I want to raise awareness and highlight the excellent work which is already being done in this space by a diverse range of organisations and individuals,” said the minister.

In recent years in Scotland we have endured numerous fishing vessel disasters, including Sapphire in 1997, Aquila in 2009 and Louisa in 2016, in addition to environmental damage caused by incidents such as the Braer oil tanker spill off Shetland in 1993. There has been a welcome raft of improvements introduced internationally over the last two decades, making life safer for those who ply their trade at sea and on offshore installations.

For example, following the sinking of the Bourbon Dolphin anchor handling vessel off Shetland in 2007, which resulted in the loss of eight lives, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) revised the requirements for ship stability, especially during anchor handling operations.

After the Braer and Sea Empress oil spills (the latter at Milford Haven in 1996), the IMO introduced a requirement that oil tankers are required to have a double hull rather than the traditional ship’s single hull. To escape from the tanker, the oil would need to breach two separate steel barriers, thus substantially reducing the risk of oil being spilled into the sea.

Over the last 20 years or so there has been a significant increase in the number of offshore support vessels built with safety rails down the sides of the main decks where the cargo is carried. The presence of these rails enables crew members to move around on deck while being protected against the risk of moving cargo.

There have also been various improvements in dynamic positioning, which enables a vessel to hold its station more accurately, and significantly reduces the risk of collision between vessels (or between a vessel and the leg of an oil rig). as well as reducing the dangers involved in cargo lifts between vessels and rigs.

Safety, of course, is always a work in progress, and modern innovations create different hazards. Only a few years ago, I am sure all of us felt that the idea of a driverless car or a drone would have been the work of science fiction.

There already have been trials of autonomous vessels, designed to operate with far fewer crew on board. The day may come where crew members will only need to be on board to guide the vessel out of and back into harbour, with crew members departing and then embarking again at the same time as the harbour pilot. That could result in vessels travelling entirely crewless from just outside the departure harbour until just outside the arrival harbour, having been controlled from an office possibly thousands of miles away.

It is still too early to say what effect, if any, Brexit will have on maritime safety regulation. The UK is seen as the gold standard in workplace health and safety, including at sea. Hopefully this will continue, although over time it is almost inevitable that a divergence will appear between safety regulation in the UK and regulation in the EU.

Any activity which raises awareness and promotes higher maritime safety standards in UK waters is a positive step forward and I sincerely hope Maritime Safety Week will become an annual event.

Bruce Craig is a partner and maritime health and safety specialist at Pinsent Masons.