The UK’s National Workboat Association hosted a Safety Forum at Seawork 2017 entitled Towage: Reducing the Risks – Raising the Standards.
In association with the MAIB and Shipowners’ Protection and Indemnity (P&I) Club, the forum brought together workboat operators and safety specialists to analyse the root causes of a number of high-profile tug accidents and outline current efforts to improve industry-wide standards and qualifications.
Held aboard the Ocean Scene vessel, if anybody was unsure of what a gog rope was at the start of the sessions, they were certainly sure of its critical importance by the end. Other recurring themes in the accidents covered by the forum were lack of towing winch emergency release switches, or lack of the necessary crew knowledge to operate them effectively, and many incidents showed a general lack of clear communication between vessels and crews to add to the mix.
The towage sector continues to suffer serious incidents that could be avoided. This is according to the National Workboat Association (NWA), which maintains that there is no room for complacency when it comes to the further development and implementation of good practice guidelines and competence standards for port, coastal and ship-assist operations.
In the wake of a number of recent incidents, some resulting in injury and fatalities, the NWA upholds that operators must be proactive in supporting the introduction of specialist qualifications to demonstrate competence, and making sure that Tug Masters have undertaken appropriate vessel-specific training to meet the demands of increasingly challenging logistical operations.
When investigated, many towage incidents have been traced back to lack of familiarity with vessels and the specific operational demands of a particular towage operation. Pilots and Ship Masters accustomed to working with larger, more capable ship-assist tugs may fail to appreciate the comparative limitations of the more traditional propulsion on smaller tugs and workboats, leading to a heightened risk of incident.
Recent incidents for UK-flagged towing vessels have been attributed to shortfalls in basic managerial procedure and rigging arrangements. In particular, girting due to a lack of gog rope, insufficient operational planning, ineffective communication with the ship under tow, and a lack of surveillance of the tug from onboard the ship, have been regularly cited in incident reports. Each of these incidents might have been prevented with appropriate training and best practice procedures in place.
The forum itself was part of the NWA’s wider drive to promote workboat safety, which also includes the support and delivery of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) recognised Voluntary Towage Endorsement Scheme. The scheme is the first of its kind in the industry to independently assess and certify a Tug Master’s practical competence, and, since 2014, the NWA has issued 170 endorsements to over 120 candidates.
However, despite this progress, the NWA recognises that there remains room for improvement, and further efforts are required to address persisting shortfalls. Even with these measures in place, the industry cannot be complacent in implementing, adhering to, and updating guidelines and qualifications as the market develops.
“Serious incidents in the towage sector thankfully remain few and far between,” commented Mark Ranson, Secretary of the NWA. “However, with the practices of vessel operators continually evolving to support the changing demands of the market – and as recent incidents make clear – there can be no allowances for shortfalls in safety standards.”
“That means the sector must retain a strong focus on the development and implementation of best practice standards, and qualifications, for towage work across the board – whether port, coastal or ship-assist operations. Addressing the “skills gap” and ensuring that lessons learnt are effectively transferred is the only way to reduce the risk of further fatal incidents.”
The forum provided an effective mix of the reassuringly blame-free forensic examination of incidents from the MAIB through to the unashamedly more hard-hitting and emotional session from towage trainer Chris King, complete with memorable tales and pictures of the whole range of possible repercussions, from missing fingers through to funerals.
Discussions at the NWA Seawork Safety forum will feed into the development of the NWA Towage Good Practice Guide, set to be published later this year. The guidelines have been developed in conjunction with both regulators and vessel operators to provide a valuable reference point for the industry.
By Jake Frith