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Are remote ship surveys safe?

ITF and IUMI question continued use of remote surveys as Covid-19 restrictions impact crew welfare and fatigue.

The benefits of remote surveys have been thrown into the spotlight as onboard crews continue to suffer fatigue and stress due to lengthened voyages brought on by an inability to pay off their vessels, and for replacement crews to join. As the Covid-19 pandemic began disrupting crew relief plans earlier in the year class societies and flag states began promoting the value of remote surveys, as a way to allow vessels to remain compliant with requirements.

However both the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) and the International Union of Marine Insurance (IUMI) have voiced their concerns about the long-term benefits of remote surveys under these conditions.

In its recent report, Beyond the Limit (see separate story on Fathom.World) ITF raises the issue of remote surveys, especially as they were being asked to be undertaken by crew who were sometimes working under duress.

Talking to Fathom.World, Odd Rune Malterud, ITF Maritime Safety Committee chair and co-author of the report, said while there is a time and a place for using remote surveys, they need to be rethought as a tool to keep vessels in service when they risk endangering ships’ crews.

Odd Rune Malterud: ITF concern about crew fatigue and the use of crews performing remote surveys

Remote surveys have been promoted by classification societies as a means to keep vessels in service for shipowners keen to earn money on them rather than force them  to idle, and also as a potential long term solution to make overall operations more efficient and cheaper.

Class societies may be undertaking remote surveys under their role as agents of a flag state under which a vessel is registered (it is known as a Recognised Organisation).

ITF, in its recently published “Beyond the Limit” report raises questions about the value of getting seafarers to do remote surveys which should be undertaken by trained and independent surveyors.

The ITF report implies that they should not be undertaken if crew levels are below a normal safe minimum and crews are fatigued. But surveys done remotely do have some value, and Malterud says they can help reduce risks to crews and surveyors on ships, especially when surveyors can deploy drones and digital tools for example.

Knut Ørbeck Nilssen, maritime CEO at Class Society DNV GL, in response to the ITF report and comments about remote surveys, said that industry needs to keep the bigger picture in view about the benefits of the tool.

Knut Ørbeck Nillsen, DNV GL: Inspections vital to preserve and maintain a ship’s safe journey.

“These inspections are vital to preserve and maintain a ship’s safe journey and after all, safety at sea is the primary concern of both the seafarers and the class societies. Having a very special pandemic at our hands, the remote surveys have helped and facilitated just that,” he said, adding that when class surveyors are performing a normal (physical) survey, crew members would be engaged to in order to show the surveyor around the vessel.

“So in general I would say the extra burden caused by having to carry a smart phone around, rather than guiding the surveyor, is maybe quite a limited additional burden to the tremendous strain they are going through at the moment.”

Responsibility and liability

Malterud strongly contests that view. As an ex-chief engineer and flag state surveyor turned trade-union representative, he says there is a lot more to to it than carrying a phone around the vessel. He also added there is the question of who has overall responsibility for the survey.  A surveyor should be an independent inspection and not done through the eyes of the crew who could be pressured to ensure the ship continues to sail, he said.

Even before the crisis began this issue of responsibility, and liability, had not been resolved and talks had begin, he said to address it.

Ships crews, he argues, should not be used to survey their own vessels, and he even showed Fathom.World a recent surveyor report of a vessel in Norway where the defects, sufficient for a detention, would not have been picked up had the crew been allowed to do the remote survey.

An insurance issue?

Helle Hammer, chair of the audit committee of the International Union of Marine Insurance said that insurers were also aware of the potential problems of asking fatigued crews to perform remote surveys on behalf of class and flag.

Insurers aware of the issues of fatigue

When asked during a press conference at the end of the first IUMI online annual conference Ms Hammer said that they shared some of the ITF concerns and were in talks with class societies to find a way forward to ensure remote surveys could be undertaken in the right way.

She also highlighted that some ships will be coming up for annual surveys and it may not be possible to perform these more detailed surveys remotely.

Some ships will be coming up for annual surveys and it may not be possible to perform these more detailed surveys remotely.

Helle Hammer, IUMI
More work needed to fit digital and remote surveys into place

A Norwegian industry working group is set to look at the issue of remote and digital surveys in the coming months, assessing how regulations could be established to deal with the issue of responsibility and potentially liability.

The problem is also heightened according to ITF because there is the growing push to make remote surveys more common place in the industry, which means that there has to be clear lines of responsibility and accountability. ITF has long been campaigning about the criminalisation of seafarers and sees this as adding to these risks. A class or flag state inspection of the safety and technical equipment is an important safety factor, and should not be seen as just a rubber-stamping exercise to keep a vessel earning money

The Working Group of ‘Samarbeid for Sikkerhet’, a Health and Safety system backed by the Norwegian industry bodies in and outside shipping, will run from Autumn 2020 to mid-2021 to assess the experiences of using remote and digital audits from a safety perspective and put forward recommendations on when a remote audits can be used.

About Author

Craig Eason Stockholm
Craig Eason is the owner and editorial director of Fathom.World. He has a background in the shipping industry having started his career as a cadet on oil tankers and gas carriers before becoming a navigating officer on a range of vessel types. A change in career, with ensuing university studies, and he has now gained 20 years experience in written and broadcast journalism. He now is in demand as a knowledgeable and competent editor and event host and moderator, both for in-house events and ones for the public.