Bulker toll remains high, despite initiatives to increase safety

Despite years of effort to make bulk carriers safer, the death toll for these ships has remained steady over the past 10 years.

While everyone acknowledges that bulk-carrier safety continues to be a problem, there is wide disagreement over solutions to the problem. There is even disagreement over how the latest statistics can be interpreted.

Over the past 10 years, 116 bulk carriers over 10,000 dwt have been lost, resulting in the deaths of 618 mariners, according to the Bulk Carrier Casualty Report released in March by the International Association of Dry Cargo Shipowners (InterCargo). That’s an average of 12 ships lost with 62 deaths each year for the past decade.

In 2001, three vessels sank, killing 64 crewmembers. That was a reversal of the trend in recent years: In 1999 there were 43 deaths from bulker casualties, and in 2000 there were 23 deaths, according to the InterCargo report. But in 2001, the sinking of just two ships accounted for 55 deaths.

   One of the most startling losses was the sinking of the 83,784-grt capesize bulker, Christopher, which went down with all 27 crew off the Azores on Dec. 22, 2001. The last report from the master reported that the No. 1 hatch cover was dislodged and that the forward hold was flooding.

The InterCargo report concluded that over the long term, deaths from bulker casualties are decreasing. “Arguably, this suggests that all the rule-making of recent years has started to have a positive and demonstrable effect on bulk-carrier safety,” InterCargo stated in its report.

During the 10-year period from 1992 to 2001, 116 large bulk carriers were lost and 618 crewmembers died, an average of 12 ships and 62 people per year. The average age of the ships lost during this period was 20.5 years. Source: InterCargo

With several safety studies about to be finished, an InterCargo official said now is not the time to rush the rule-making process. “Let’s not panic,” said Peter Kidman, safety, environmental and technical manager for InterCargo. “Let’s make a careful review of the findings and make some well-balanced, measured decisions.”

But for mariners’ representatives, that advice rings hollow. “That’s a well-placed response on behalf of some of the owners’ interests,” said Joseph Thuillier, head of claims for the International Transport Workers’ Federation, a federation of almost 600 transport trade unions, which represents 5 million workers worldwide. “It would seem more credible if we saw more developments.”

Thuillier wants action, not more debate over rule changes. He said that all bulkers 30 years old or more should be scrapped immediately. “The risks with older ships is recognized by all parties,” he said. “We should see that those ships would be defective at that age and that superficial rule changes are not going to reduce the risk to those vessels.”

Safety efforts for bulk carriers have focused on strengthening hatch covers and deck fittings to prevent flooding of forward compartments. Engineers have also suggested that bulkers be built with a raised forecastle to prevent these ships from burying the bow in heavy seas. Of 360 bulk-carrier casualties investigated by a Japan team working on an International Maritime Organization Formal Safety Assessment, 70 percent were caused by flooding after a failure of shell plating, deck fittings or hatch covers, according to the InterCargo report.

New rules have been adopted this spring. In May, the IMO approved a requirement that water ingress alarms be installed in all bulk carriers.

In March, the International Association of Classification Societies adopted three new rules for bulk-carrier safety:

  • Installation of water ingress alarms in the cargo holds of existing vessels,
  • Strengthening the transverse corrugated bulkhead between the No. 1 and No. 2 holds in ships at 10 years, rather than 15 years,
  • Expanding an existing survey program for bulkers 10 to 15 years old.

    The IACS also proposed five additional rules to be studied and adopted at a later date. More action is expected at the December meeting of the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee, when results from that organization’s Formal Safety Assessment on bulk carriers should be available.

  • Lake Carling developed a stress fracture in its hull during a voyage across the Gulf of St. Lawrence in March 2002. After temporary repairs were made, the ship and its crew of 19 made it safely back to port.

    For Thuillier, these steps have taken far too long. “All the problems that we associate with bulk carriers were known 20 years back,” he said. “It seems ludicrous to me, as a former mariner, that we still argue the means of how a ship can have a water ingress monitor. It should have been put in long ago.”

    And yet, when the IACS announced its new rules in March, there was controversy. Some people were upset that the IACS took these steps on its own, without consulting other organizations. William O’Neil, the IMO’s secretary-general, was quoted as calling the IACS announcement untimely and discourteous.

    There is one fact that most parties can agree to: Older bulkers are the problem. According to the InterCargo report, the average age of bulk carriers that sank between 1992 and 2001 was 20.5 years. In 2001, the average age of ships lost was 18.8 years. InterCargo also reports that the average age of the 5,475 bulk carriers in the world fleet is 15.2 years.

    The losses in ships and tonnage are decreasing, according to the InterCargo report. And a comparison of the average number of lives lost in the 10-year periods 1990 to 1999, 1991 to 2000, and 1992 to 2001 shows that, over time, the number of lives lost is decreasing.

    Because older ships are the ones sinking, it will take time to correct the problem, Kidman said. “Ships built 20 years ago — which are sinking today — were not built with the same understanding that we have today,” he said. Putting new rules in place won’t instantly halt losses. “There’s a lot of older tonnage out there,” Kidman said. “Bulk carriers will not stop sinking just because we have some rules in place.”

    Those circumstances point to a larger problem with bulkers, Thuillier said, which is that the design has not fundamentally changed since the 1960s. To make the problem even worse, the weight of the metal used to build these ships has been reduced over the years, he said. If a specific model of airplane had the same history of disasters that bulkers have, it would have been scrapped or redesigned years ago, he said.

    Thuillier said one solution would be to adopt a new design for bulk carriers. He was impressed with a new capesize bulk-carrier design unveiled in May. The Norwegian designer Ole-Jacob Libaek designed a new bulker with a centerline bulkhead and a double hull.

    At a meeting on bulk-carrier safety in London this spring, InterCargo chairman Frederick Tsao said his group is working with the China Classification Society to produce a new design for bulk carriers that would become an industry benchmark.

    Lack of public awareness is part of the problem, Kidman said. When an oil tanker spills oil on a pristine coastline, it generates international headlines. “With a scruffy old cargo ship or bulk carrier, the public awareness, the public concern about these ships going down isn’t there, is it?” Kidman said.

    In a report on bulk-carrier safety, prepared for the Baltic and International Maritime Council, Niels Bjorn Mortensen made the same point. “Considering the number of bulk carriers and lives lost over the past 15 to 20 years, it is remarkable that it has not caused more of a stir in the public media,” Mortensen wrote.

  • By Professional Mariner Staff