News Article 09/01/2006

Not waving, but drowning by Michael Grey (Lloyd's List, Monday 09,2006)

09/01/2006 - Lloyd's List , Monday January 09, 2006


The motto of the famous old shipping company I sailed with, which carried with it a health warning to those who might actually have believed it, was "our sins were many, but our paperwork was perfect".
But that was before the age of instant communications, when a shipmaster enjoyed quite extensive autonomy and was moreover defended by tough-minded superintendents who were on his side and made sure the strictures of non-mariners were appropriately modified before they were transmitted to the fleet.
But of course our paperwork, and the intrusion of shoreside bureaucracy into our lives, was infinitely less than the colossal burden of today, when a ship is treated like the charterer's branch office and regulation has multiplied beyond the imagination of those who ran ships in those days.
Despite our ironic motto there was no real sense that paperwork was the priority in life, nor the slavish adherence to external audit and inspection the very meaning for our existence. The safe operation of the ships, and, let us face it, their appearance, took precedence over everything, and that included the need to arrive on time.
If weather was going to make us late, well, that was shipping and no one was ever going to be blamed for the idle dockers or the cargo piling up on the quayside. Safety came first and there would not be even the mildest criticism of a master who was delayed by fog or heavy weather. No one would have dared.
But all of that was a couple of generations ago and might have been on another planet in comparison with the regime of today, when regulations rule the lives of those who go down to the sea in ships.
Only on the US coast was I particularly aware of the paper chasers . I recall having to fill in forms of simply staggering complexity, produced by maddened bureaucrats and from which I believe US trade statistics were compiled.
With a full general cargo of thousands of different items, it involved totalling numbers of items and weights " in long tons " of vast numbers of categories of goods.
At least six copies had to be provided for the various federal agencies, which in pre-Xerox days required a considerable physical effort, pressing the biro like a marline spike so that it was legible through six sheets of carbon. It took ages.
The small print also contained various threatening messages from the Customs specifying penalties for error, although I do not remember being anything other than annoyed at all this meaningless bureaucracy and certainly was not intimidated. We made vast approximations as to the quantity of machinery or newsprint, periodicals other than newspapers or foodstuffs, specifying the origin. I always thought that, if the Washington statisticians were so anxious to discover the tonnages they were exporting, they should have sent someone down to the docks to count it all for them rather than rely on others.
These days failure to comply, or the sort of rough approximations we made, would probably lay the wretched ship's officer liable to 40 years in Sing Sing and a fine of about two zillion dollars for conspiracy and lying to the authorities, such is the inflation of US penal provisions. Death by lethal injection is doubtless specified in certain states.
I am afraid I was led into this rather depressing topic by the latest issue of Alert, the International Maritime Human Element Bulletin, which is a project of the Nautical Institute and sponsored by Lloyd's Register. The theme of this particular issue is the relationship between regulations and the regulated, the need for regulations and their practical implementation. It is an important topic.
Don't get me wrong. There always has been a good reason for regulations, which are really not based on the arbitrary whim of some bureaucrat sitting in an officer looking at a large, blank piece of paper and thinking how he can make someone's life a misery.
Regulatory liberals cry out, "What about common sense?" and they may well have something, although this admirable quality is not so generally available as it is often believed.
Just think of the Dover Strait with the regulations for the prevention of collision suddenly eradicated from the minds of mariners, and anarchy prevails.
The editor of Alert! has been doing his own statistical computations and has worked out that there are more than 900 IMO resolutions, 60 ILO conventions and recommendations, 206 ISO standards for shipbuilding and the operation of ships and 87 IEC standards relating to ships' electrical equipment.
Many of this formidable list, he suggests, relate to the human element, although you could probably argue they all do in that if one is ignored or misinterpreted the sad consequences will be inevitably regarded as a "human error".
So, regulations are not developed by mere cussedness, by naturally bossy people, but because they are deemed necessary. They are there for guidance, safety, procedural correctness and, as always, an element of control. They are there to protect the seafarer, the ship and the environment.
So, no one other than an anarchist would suggest that a bonfire of regulations should take place. Nevertheless, it is at least arguable that the rules should be regularly assessed to ensure their currency and applicability to modern conditions, and when they become redundant they should be promptly abolished rather than lurk about irrelevantly for years.
There is a very telling diagram in the Alert! bulletin which contrasts the good intentions of regulations with the reality of delivery once human nature has got to work on them. They could be termed the "unintended consequences".
Therefore regulations on minimum safe manning are designed to provide acceptable work routines and safe ship operation. Who could ever dispute that they were necessary?
But, once fallen mankind has intervened, we find that there is inter-flag competition for lowest manning, fatigue and overwork, misreporting of hours worked, a decline in training and poor staff retention.
The International Ship and Port Facility Security Code was seen as desperately necessary after September 11, 2001, to detect and deter acts which threaten security. The unintended consequences have been criminalisation of the seafarer, the reduction in quality of life, divisive treatment of crews " which, in other walks of life, would be regarded as racial discrimination " and, once again, a serious effect on retention. Similarly, the International Safety Management Code was conceived for all the right reasons, to promote safe practices in ship operation and a safe working environment.
But, sadly, it can result in a vast increase in documentation, endless inspections, an ever-increasing reliance on checklists " which carry their own health warnings " violations of poorly specified procedures and an excuse to criminalise the seafarer further.
"Death by ISM", in which blind compliance is regarded as more important than anything else, is a merciful release. The author applies the same procedure in his assessment of the STCW Convention, ILO conventions and health regulations, class rules and the Colregs.
They are all necessary, all important, but somewhere their effectiveness is diminished by flawed implementation, or the wrong attitude. The message, it is concluded, is that the regulator making the regulations needs to take these consequences into account by ensuring that "realistic" human behaviour, not merely good intentions, is properly assessed.
One of the practical effects of a highly regulated environment is that those who have other operational priori- ties are now finding themselves torn between the need to focus on their administrative burdens and their "real" job.
It is a pretty universal problem if you talk to doctors or schoolteachers, but ships' officers are serious sufferers too.
Captain Nicholas Cooper, writing about the effects of regulations, suggests that masters and chief engineers can be dangerously detained from their main jobs by "the avalanche of legislation and regulations that have fallen on them in the past decade" and which increasingly isolate them from the hands-on running of their ships.
He describes the conscious effort he must make to tear himself away from his administrative burden to visit the bridge, train and mentor his junior officers and remain in touch with the reality of ship operation.
So much regulation, he suggests, has been "dumped on the ship" in the expectation that they will just get on with it. It is, thank goodness, why some companies are now increasing manning, to help with this paperwork burden or to see it distributed more evenly.
Others are supplying ships with advanced systems, like Ulysses, which help to restore order to the lives of those who otherwise might be overwhelmed.
Because another unintended consequence is that if junior officers, or cadets, are able to see only the top of the Old Man's head behind a pile of papers in his in-tray, from which he emerges but rarely, they are likely to question whether they really want such a tedious future, or whether command carries with it anything other than worry and eyestrain.