At a recent press briefing of the International Association of Classifications, its newly elected chair, Nick Brown from Lloyd’s Register, talked about how class societies want to make remote surveys. Which appeared during the COVID-19 pandemic, a permanent feature. The International Maritime Organisation’s Maritime Safety Committee has now agreed to look at the topic of remote surveys, ISM Code Audits and ISPS code verifications under a new work programme starting in 2022.
Unions are cautious. They see the benefits but are worried about putting crews under extra pressure.
Class surveys and inspections are a certification requirement, a ticket to sail for international ships. On a regular basis a vessel’s crew can expect class surveyors to join a vessel in a port to inspect various aspects of the vessel to ensure it meets that class society’s safety requirements.
However, as the COVID-19 pandemic struck, class surveyors found themselves unable to travel or barred from ports and ships for an indefinite length of time.
At first some of the classification societies issued extensions of certificates, as did flag states which largely use class societies as their recognised organisations to do inspection work on their behalf.
Then class began to push forward the idea of remote inspections, a service that was nascent and largely untried before the pandemic hit. For the unions the issue of reducing costs was seen as a key driver for class to push this, with some of the cost savings being also seen by vessel operators who have to pay for class surveyor visits.
The International Association of Classification Societies sees remote surveys being part of the continues digitalisation of the industry. Recently Nick Brown, Chief Executive of UK classification society Lloyd’s Register assumed the role of chair of IACS. He is the first to take the role under the associations new term of governance which allows him to assume the role for two years, with an option for re-election.
In the recent press meeting, he spoke of IACS’ desire to promote remote surveys as a tool for the future digitalisation of shipping, but agreed there is the need to think carefully about the crew. He pointed to the need for ships’ crew to receive advice and guidance throughout the remote survey process as it will be them that have to go round the vessel and into tanks, cofferdams etc. He also said remote surveys will not totally replace physical surveys but supplement them and that they should take place during less intense periods of vessel operations
During the IACS briefing Brown also said there is the hope that remote surveys can be viewed by other interested parties such as port state control and vetting agents which could also reduce the workload of crews who may find inspectors from different agencies expecting to have access to the vessel and be escorted around to undertake separate inspections.
This is also recognised by the SFS report though it does add the caveat about putting crew under undue pressure of there are too many questions or requests. SFS pints out that the audit or survey needs to be well planned and prepared in advance to make it work properly.
This latter point has been contested by one union which has told Fathom World about some members reporting they have been told to undertake inspections while traveling though the congested waters of the English Channel. Odd Rune Malterud is Assistant Director at the Norwegian Union of Marine Engineers. He is concerned that the class societies are are pushing for remote surveys for financial reasons, despite their insistence of a focus on crew welfare.
However, he welcomes the IMO proposed work to focus on the issue. He has been working with industry, unions and government bodies in Norway in a collaboration project known as “Working Together for Safety” (SFS).
It has developed its own paper on how digital surveys could be developed for shipping and done so with the safety of the crew in mind.
A list of challenges relating to digital or remote surveys has been drawn up by SFS. They relate to the need for better planning ahead of the audit, leaving little room for unplanned changes, as well as immediate communication and additional information may not be available. With some audit or survey situations a crew member may find themselves in a difficult situation if there are many people present watching as they perform the audit on behalf of a surveyor. There is the sue of video and image quality, shipboard connectivity and lighting conditions.
Issues of weather conditions and safe access to enclosed or other spaces also need to be considered, particularly with any instruments and tools needed (a certified explosive proof camera for example).
However, the report also points to benefits of digital audits, namely better access to technical expertise, opportunity to perform simultaneous audits at several locations, better use of time and save travel) and an opportunity to combine digital and physical solutions.
IMO WOrk plan
The IMO work will develop guidance on assessments and applications of remote surveys, the ISM Code and SPIS Code verification. It will take into account how any remote work must be equivalent to any physical inspections to comply with existing rules.
It should also take into consideration timings of surveys and audits and avoid additional burden, as much as possible, for crew, a managers and shipowners. The work will be dealt with by the III-sub committee (Implementation of IMO Instruments) for completion in 2024, however remote surveys and audits will still be performed, though likely on a state by state, need by need basis.