Minister lukewarm about extending "safety case" approach to ships

Proposals by the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology for radical changes in the safety and pollution prevention regime for ships appear unlikely to be accepted by the Government.

The Committee's report was published in March.1 It voiced concern that the capacity of marine casualties to damage the environment is increasing, and that the chances of serious shipping accidents are growing with the ageing of the world fleet. At the same time, ships are not being designed on a scientific basis, and regulators are struggling to keep up with technological developments affecting the design, construction and operation of ships.

One of the Committee's central concerns was the prescriptive approach which dominates regulations on ship safety. The rules are generally based on experience and rule of thumb, are often developed in reaction to disasters rather than based on a preventive philosophy, and offer no incentive to do any better than the minimum standard prescribed.

These shortcomings are compounded by the secrecy surrounding ship designs and the lack of incident reporting systems which would permit designers to learn about dangerous defects. Likewise, the recent "proliferation" of unreliable classification societies, which survey ships on behalf of insurers, the willingness of marine underwriters to "insure anything", and the highly variable standards of enforcement by flag states work against maritime safety.

The Committee's principal recommendation is that the regulation of ship safety should be switched from a prescriptive standard-setting approach concerned primarily with structures and equipment to one based on risk assessment and dealing with safety management systems as well as hardware.

Risk analysis, the report points out, is already used widely in the regulation of nuclear and chemical hazards and civil aviation safety. Its limited application to shipping is not due to "any special feature inherent to ship operations which renders full risk analysis impossible; rather, we consider it is because the framework for ship safety regulation has not hitherto required it."

The Committee envisages that primary safety goals for ships would be set by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). They would be based on quantified assessment of risks, analysis of costs and benefits, and agreed standards of acceptable risk. Operators would then be required to produce a safety case demonstrating how they would meet the primary safety goals for approval by the flag state. Backing up this regime would be prescribed conditions in areas such as safety equipment, manning levels, crew competence and safety systems which would be used as a checklist for inspections by port states.

The Committee acknowledges that immediate implementation of its recommendations would be impracticable. For example, improved statistical returns to the IMO by flag states would be essential to build up the database for quantified assessments of shipping risks. The UK, it says, should also take the lead in establishing a system of reporting of dangerous shipping incidents and confidential reporting of potentially dangerous mistakes, along the lines of the systems already operated in civil aviation.

But the most serious obstacle to the "safety case" approach, the report says, lies in the area of enforcement. Flag states would play a crucial role both in evaluating safety cases, and in laying down adequate supplementary conditions for enforcement by port states. Under present conditions, however, the wide divergences in enforcement standards between flag states would mean that a safety case approach "would undermine port state control and play into the hands of the flags of convenience."

A number of measures are recommended by the Committee to improve enforcement standards. In Europe, it says, port state control should be focussed on ships flying the flags of countries whose ship safety regimes have been identified by the IMO as ineffective. The results of inspections should be widely available to insurers and classification societies. And an EC standard on safety management systems for shipping should be made compulsory for ships carrying oil or hazardous cargoes in EC waters.

The switch to a safety case approach, the Committee says, may take a generation to achieve. The UK should take the lead in pressing for it within the EC and IMO, and should agreement within the IMO prove impossible the EC should impose the new system unilaterally on all ships carrying passengers, oil or hazardous cargoes in its waters.

During the Committee's inquiry, the Department of Transport was distinctly lukewarm about the Committee's ideas, and when the report was debated in the Lords on 1 June there was no sign from Transport Minister Lord Caithness that it has become any more receptive to the safety case approach.

While accepting its "intellectual appeal", Lord Caithness said that "it must be open to question whether many of the world's shipping companies have the expertise, let alone the resources and interest, that would be required to make this approach effective." And while the UK supports moves within the IMO to regulate operational procedures and require safety management certificates for the safe operation of ships and pollution prevention, a "significant part" of the safety requirements would have to be based on prescriptive regulations "at least for the foreseeable future."

The UK, Lord Caithness revealed, also remains opposed to the sort of unilateral EC action advocated by the Committee, and indeed to "involving the European Community too much in what it essentially an international matter."

The one glimmer of hope offered to the Committee by the Minister was on its recommendation that the Surveyor General's Organisation, which draws up and enforces ship safety regulations, should be separated from the Department of Transport and established as an independent safety authority. This, he promised, will be given "careful consideration." A full response to the Committee's report is expected later this year.

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