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A case for preventing accidents the old-fashioned way

A major liability insurer in the UK has called for the return of the old practice of having the ship's master walk around the ship weekly, looking for safety lapses

WHEN I worked at sea - admittedly rather a long time ago now - the master's rounds (or captain's rounds, as some would say) were an integral part of ship-board life. Back then, we probably viewed these weekly walkabouts either as a quaint ritual or an irritation, when they were really part of an effective accident-prevention regime.

A major liability insurer, the London P&I Club, is now pushing owners to revive this practice. It says its ship inspection programme has revealed a frequent failure to observe basic on-board procedures, with potentially costly consequences for owners and operators.

In the latest issue of its StopLoss Bulletin, the insurer said: "With increased commercial pressures on the master of a ship, some simple and potentially 'old-school' habits often fall by the wayside. For instance, we consider that one of the most useful tools for maintaining a quality operation and safe working environment is the weekly captain's rounds."

So does it matter that the master himself take this weekly walk around the ship? Well, the insurer gives several examples of issues that "may slip past the daily team, but be spotted by the master". These include an untidy paint locker with opened and partly-used tins of paint lying around, presenting a fire risk, mooring ropes left uncovered on mooring drums, open to degradation in sunlight, and a perished rubber gasket on the engine room escape hatch.

London Club said: "Many findings identified during a ship inspection are easily detectable by the ship's officers and crew. It is relatively rare that findings are latent. The master is the overseeing eye, carrying enhanced responsibility for all shipboard activities, coupled with a motivating role as the ship's focal point."

Regular master's rounds probably disappeared for all sorts of understandable reasons. They were very much a part of the relatively slow-moving rhythms of the general cargo ship that disappeared decades ago.

Today, the pressure is on masters to struggle with all the demands of a modern vessel, with "lean manning", incessant bureaucratic demands from head office and local port authorities, and rapid port turnarounds.

However, the insurer added: "Not all ships' operational programmes allow for regular Sunday routines, but when an opportunity exists, an hour spent touring the ship with the chief officer can enable the master to detect housekeeping issues as they develop. The experienced eye of the master can not only detect these issues at an early stage, but can also help the chief officer populate the weekly job list."

I hope London Club's advice is taken up, but let's not get too dewy-eyed about the way we approached health and safety 50 years ago. Generally speaking, we are much better at health and safety now, not least because of the requirement for ships to have a Safety Management System (SMS) in place.

Unfortunately, just having an SMS does not achieve anything if it isn't implemented effectively. In too many cases, simple precautions to prevent accidents are not being taken. How do we know that? Well, apart from the cost in human terms, accidents cost money. That is why the insurers take a keen interest and are prepared to spend money in preventive programmes.

Stuart Edmonston, the loss-prevention director at another liability insurer, UK P&I Club, commented recently: "Unfortunately, many preventable accidents still occur every year in the marine industry."

In a bid to improve safety at sea, the UK Club is producing interactive training videos that promote "reflective-learning". Having watched its video titled Fall from a Generator Platform, I now know reflective-learning means being asked questions and having to pause the video to think about the answers.

The video can be accessed for free by anybody at It should ideally be viewed by all crew, but certainly by those responsible for safety training.

The UK Club has another project underway: It has announced its initial shortlist of 10 finalists for its "Investing in a Safer Tomorrow" global maritime competition, which coincides with the Club's 150th anniversary. Contestants (students or those entering the maritime industry) are required to come up with innovative, industry-changing ideas that improve safety at sea.

The prize purse of US$50,000 pulled in 222 entries from across the world for the first stage of the competition; the field has since been whittled down to the 10 who showed originality, relevance and simplicity in their proposals. They will now move on to the second stage.

Three finalists will be picked and invited to develop their ideas with support from the UK Club. The three will be flown to the UK this July for the UK P&I Club's 150th gala dinner in London, where they will present their ideas before a judging panel. The winning team or individual will receive US$30,000; the second-placed team will win US$15,000, and the team placed third, US$5,000.

Of course, the UK Club should be commended for its work to promote safety. But it is worth bearing in mind that all this concern on the part of the industry's insurers is sign that we are still way off having a genuine, effective safety culture throughout the world's fleet. Having old-fashioned master's rounds would go some way to build that.