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A look at the unlikely

23 Dec 2011
Those charged with safe handling of vessels should be involved in Marine Risk Assessments. Photo: Ingrid Taylar

Those charged with safe handling of vessels should be involved in Marine Risk Assessments. Photo: Ingrid Taylar

An all-encompassing risk assessment is a necessity, not a luxury, as Stevie Knight finds out

The reason for a risk assessment that covers the “unlikely” is that you need to intelligently deploy resources while understanding that the unexpected cannot be ignored, says Dr Richard Colwill, managing director of BMT Asia Pacific (Hong Kong).

A recent Hong Kong typhoon illustrated this, where tugs were deployed to ready a vessel for evacuation of the port in time, but the ultra-large container ship (stacked as it was with boxes) was pinned against the berth by the high winds associated with the edge of the storm. “It’s these unexpected scenarios that show you that the resources you thought you had suddenly prove to be inadequate,” says Dr Colwill. Happily, the ship eventually managed to get away from the berth, but it was a clear example of being caught out by a change in requirements.

It’s usually not just the obvious that causes most difficulty when you are dealing with those ‘outside chances’, and a number of problems can all come together. “Events, when you map them, often look like a bow tie,” says Dr Colwill. He explains a number of inadequately controlled hazards can knot together into escalating consequences.

Therefore a port might want to look over a neighbour’s shoulder to look for experience, and even occasionally work together. Hurricane incidents showed US ports that communications failure tied unhappily with administration problems, and a number have put in redundant systems – covering not just power, but phone lines too.

Further, to avoid any alternate operations site being hit by the same incident, the Port of New Orleans has partnered up with Shreveport in Louisiana almost 200 miles away, with an agreement to use it as a control centre if New Orleans is out of business for more than five days.

But there’s another, more obvious factor that is pushing at the boundaries of known scenarios.

“The big newbuilds are catching ports on the back foot,” says Mr Colwill, as these now arrive in almost two years from declaration and the ports predictably find problems in keeping up.

However, he points out that it’s a complicated evolution: “While ships have been getting bigger in terms of containers, in recent years we haven’t seen a significant increase in draft; and with container ship width constrained by available quay crane reach, the main gain has been in length.”

The shape is also morphing along with the push towards slower steaming: “Box ships used to be the greyhounds of the sea, but now slow steaming - which may be here to stay – means they travel under 20 knots,” he says.

“Additional length and slower speeds may result in a much squarer hull form for ultra large containerships in future,” says Dr Colwill, which impacts manoeuvrability. And although it’s offset by thrusters and large rudders, it still adds to the burden of new conditions and operational issues ports must manage.

Often more tugs are needed to mitigate these risks, with bollard pulls of 70T now on the market. But it’s not a ‘one size fits all answer’ as in exposed waters even the bigger tugs can find they’ve get a significant efficiency drop. This sets up a clash between planning and operational issues: for example, LNG facilities where the berths are located away from traditional sheltered port areas for safety, operational, environmental and economic reasons, and yet these are more exposed by nature so the tugs’ ability, and the availability of the berth, may be sharply reduced.

You can do a marine risk assessment, even quite a sophisticated one, which doesn’t go into sufficient detail or misses the point entirely, says Captain Stephen Gyi of GAC Training and Service Solutions.

Unfortunately, this ‘missing the point’ can be less an oversight and more of a “commercially driven decision”, he adds.

Outlining a basic process, he explains that a group of experts identify the probable marine related hazards (HAZID) and resulting environmentally-related hazards (ENVID), including emergencies such as vessels losing power, colliding or running aground. Obviously, “those risks with potential to endanger life or damage the environment are particularly important to capture”.

The levels of consequence and the likelihood of occurrence are filled out, often on a five-by-five risk matrix. From this, the team returns to the beginning and assesses each hazard in turn, which provides a value of either high, medium or low risk, depending on the chosen values for that location, type of cargo and vessel involved, and the scenarios are re-run with projected mitigation measures in place.

While there are almost always measures that can be adopted, they usually come with a cost attached, so the idea is get all associated risks down to what industry recognises as ‘as low as reasonably practical’ or ALARP.

However Capt Gyi outlines the problem. “There is usually sufficient historical marine statistical data to act as a guide for assessing the probability of risk connected with common incidents, such as grounding and collisions, but outside this it’s often a matter of opinion.”

He explains that this is why you need marine experts directly involved with safe handling of the vessels in that specific location, from the port authority and pilots to the ships’ captains, coastguard and tugging companies.  

“Without having the right people around the table throughout a Marine Risk Assessment,” he says, “you can simply make your risk assessment say what you want it to say”, which obviously isn’t always in everyone’s best interests. He also adds that it should be comprehensive enough to be made transparent, something which, he adds “is seldom the case”.

Capt Gyi also points out that a port’s Marine Risk Assessment should be updated following changes, including the introduction of new terminals or vessels. Importantly, he says that sometimes the process has been sidelined, “where undertaking a proper updated risk assessment would highlight the need for funds for improvements which may not be possible to raise”, says Capt Gyi.

However, Dr Colwill points out while you might ‘road test’ the physical limits of an operation, “You still have to ask, ‘what about the people?’

“We have an ongoing and worldwide challenge to get good adequate marine staff to support local port operations,” he points out, adding that the industry simply isn’t creating enough mariner expertise, at all levels. “Further, a long term challenge is building the skills base in the context of so much change.”

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Those charged with safe handling of vessels should be involved in Marine Risk Assessments. Photo: Ingrid Taylar

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