Safety At Sea - Engineering Challenges
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Safety At Sea - Engineering Challenges


IMO chief presents 1999 LR Lecture
"The possibilities offered by engineering advances are so exciting that it is easy to be blinded by them and to disregard the requirement to manage developments carefully," William O'Neil, secretary-general of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), told a meeting of senior industry personnel on 15 March 1999.
"The rate of change in technology is accelerating rather than slowing down - and, like any other industry, this revolution will affect shipping," he said. "There is a danger that commercial advantages of a new idea will result in other implications - such as safety - being overlooked." Mr O'Neil was giving the annual LR Lecture, organised by the Royal Academy of Engineering and sponsored by Lloyd's Register. Entitled "Safety at sea - engineering challenges", Mr O'Neil's presentation addressed the balance that must be achieved between financial considerations and safety issues in all new projects. "It is important that objectives are clearly defined when new ideas are being developed, and that safety and environmental issues are considered. The human factor is also of vital importance and must never be forgotten." He examined the evolution of the oil tanker. "In 1950 a tanker of over 20,000 tons was considered big whereas by the end of the 1960s ships of more than 200,000 tons were being delivered regularly. "The British Vigilance, a 300,000 dwt ULCC (or Ultra Large Crude Carrier - the simple term 'tanker' was not deemed adequate to describe these ships) is an example of one of these mammoth vessels. At 343 metres, she is 100 metres longer than the Canary Wharf Tower is tall. It has been calculated that to inspect a ship of this size a surveyor might have to climb 9,997 metres (Mount Everest is 8,848 metres high), examine steelwork with an area the equivalent of 1,500 tennis courts, and check 1,200 kilometres of welding - the distance between Copenhagen and Paris. "The British Vigilance is a huge structure, not just a big ship: yet the biggest tanker in the world today is nearly twice as large: she is the Jahre Viking, of about 565,000 deadweight tons. She is 69 metres wide and 458 metres long: stood on end, she would be 214 metres higher than the Canary Wharf Tower." But, Mr O'Neil pointed out, there was a downside which few people had considered - until something went wrong. He gave as an example the tanker Torrey Canyon which, in 1967, went aground off the coast of Cornwall, causing the biggest oil pollution disaster ever to have occurred until that time. "What is surprising - and again I am speaking with the advantage of hindsight - is that it came as such a surprise." Another ship type considered by Mr O'Neil was the ro-ro ferry. "The ro-ro was an appealingly simple concept. Simply place a door at either end of the ship, connected by a huge, unrestricted deck area, and you have created what it is in effect a floating bridge. Vehicles drive on at one end and off at the other. The ro-ro concept seemed to provide all the answers - until something went wrong. "The shipping community was shocked and devastated when the Herald of Free Enterprise suddenly capsized in March 1987 a few minutes after leaving the port of Zeebrugge, with the loss of 193 lives. The subsequent inquiry showed that the accident happened because water entered the vehicle deck through the bow door which had been left open when the ship sailed. A relatively simple alarm could have been fitted which would have alerted the bridge of the situation, but it had been rejected as an unnecessary expense." Mr O'Neil reminded his audience that, since the loss of the Herald - and spurred on by the even greater disaster of the Estonia in 1994 when over 850 people were killed - a great deal had been done to make ro-ro ferries safer. "But one is still compelled to ask why it was necessary for hundreds of people to die before positive remedial action was taken?" Mr O'Neil drew attention to the fact that improvements in ship safety seem related to the amount of publicity given to disasters. "In general, improvements in safety have been driven by accidents. It is as though we need the shock of a catastrophe to force us to take action and even then the steps taken and the results achieved are often proportionate to the political, media and public outrage and the pressures they generate. The closer the accident is to the television cameras of the Western world - and the more dramatic the pictures on the screen - the sooner something will be done. "This is not the way to deal with improving safety at sea because emotion often overrides a sound analysis of the cause and in the interest of being seen to be decisive - this refers particularly to politicians - the wrong solution could be adopted. "IMO has recognised this and in recent years has brought about a switch to the so-called proactive approach with which it has achieved some success. By introducing a more structured risk analysis process through a Formal Safety Assessment Procedure, regulators are compelled to examine potential problem areas and to introduce appropriate measures or standards before a tragedy occurs. But there are still blots on the record of the shipping industry that demand attention." In conclusion, Mr O'Neil pointed out that the search for ultimate safety is a never-ending quest which, he said, "must, nonetheless, be pursued ceaselessly. It is the holy grail which is always just beyond the grasp of our finger tips so that the challenge to seize it remains as strong as ever." Copies of the LR Lecture are available from Susan Bassam of the Royal Academy of Engineering (tel: 0171 227 0531 or email: More infromation: Lloyds Register Becky Lacey - Press & PR email


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