IMO panel proposes changes to make new bulkers safer

After years of controversy over measures needed to make bulk carriers more seaworthy, the International Maritime Organization’s Maritime Safety Committee has adopted several rules that will make new bulkers considerably safer. The most significant move is a requirement for double-side-skin construction for all new bulk carriers of 150 meters (492 feet) and longer.

While the rules for new bulkers, adopted in December 2002, will help reduce casualties, the MSC’s failure to act on several proposals designed to make existing bulkers safer upset seamen’s representatives. “It is a sad state of affairs, indeed scandalous, that the parties to the IMO would not consider any retrofitting to existing bulkers to attempt improving their safety,” said David Heindel, secretary-treasurer of the Seafarers International Union.

Between 1992 and 2001, 116 bulk carriers over 10,000 dwt have been lost, resulting in the deaths of 618 mariners. And ships 15 years and older accounted for 89 percent of all bulker casualties between 1991 and 2000, according to the American Bureau of Shipping.

“The loss of bulk carriers will be high for many years to come,” said John Bainbridge, assistant secretary of the seafarers section of the International Transport Workers’ Federation. “I don’t see that they’ve done anything to stop it on existing ships.”

Studies have shown that single-hull bulkers carrying high-density cargoes are particularly vulnerable to sinking, according to a 2001 report by Gus Bourneuf, the chief surveyor for the ABS. Other risk factors cited by Bourneuf include structural failures and flooding in the No. 1 cargo hold.

Bulker safety studies have looked at strengthening the transverse bulkhead between the No. 1 and No. 2 holds to prevent further flooding of the ship, strengthening hatch covers and foredeck fittings to counter green-water loading, the addition of a forecastle and new methods to measure hull strength.

In December, with the completion of an IMO-sponsored Formal Safety Assessment of bulk carriers, the MSC adopted several new measures. It requires that all bulkers have high-level alarms and level monitoring systems to detect water ingress, effective July 1, 2004. It also requires that pumping systems that drain dry-space bilges and ballast tanks forward of the collision bulkhead be operable from an accessible, enclosed space. The MSC also ruled that all bulkers and oil tankers must provide complete access to cargo spaces to allow for proper inspections.

But the biggest changes came in rules recommended for new ships. These rules will likely transform the bulker industry, according to Peter Kidman, safety, environmental and technical manager for the International Association of Dry Cargo Ship Owners (InterCargo). Following trends in oil-tanker safety, the MSC recommended that all new bulk carriers have double-side-skin construction. “New bulk carriers, when all these things come into force, will be a totally different animal than existing bulk carriers,” Kidman said.

The new double-hull bulkers will also have to be built strong enough to withstand the flooding of any single cargo hold. In addition, new bulkers will have to have standard coatings for seawater ballast tanks and for the spaces between double hulls. The MSC also endorsed new regulations being drawn up by the International Association of Classification Societies that will require ships built on or after Jan. 1, 2004, to have foredeck fittings able to withstand green-water loads. And the MSC also noted that the IACS will require, effective Jan. 1, 2004, that new bulkers be built with a forecastle to minimize the impact of green-sea loading on fore hatch covers. New ships will also need to have single free-fall survival craft with a float-free capacity.

The Sub-Committee on Ship Design and Equipment was to transform these recommendations into rules at its March 10 meeting. Based on the rule-making process for the IMO, these new regulations probably won’t be in place until 2005 at the earliest.

This period of transition between older single-skin bulkers and the new double-hull bulkers could be difficult for owners, who will have to decide what type of ship to purchase before the rules are final. “One of the greatest concerns is that the new measures may well introduce a two-tier market,” Kidman said. The new bulkers will have a new design and more steel. “The new ships will certainly be more expensive; they are much stronger ships,” Kidman said.

Some have already anticipated these new standards. The ABS, a classification society, worked with two companies from Hong Kong and Japan to build six double-side-skin bulkers in 1997. And in a 1999 study, the ABS determined that it would only cost an additional $373,000 to purchase and operate a double-hull bulker over 20 years, compared with the cost of a single-hull bulker. The study concluded that a double-hull bulker would be easier to maintain, more efficient to operate, and would have a higher resale value than a single-hull bulker.

But when it came to existing bulk carriers, the MSC took very little action. The committee decided that the replacement of hatch covers in existing ships would not be cost-effective. It did instruct the ship-design subcommittee to come up with standards for hatch-cover securing mechanisms in existing ships. The MSC concluded that the ballast-tank coatings in existing ships could be monitored through the current enhanced survey program without new regulations.

Regarding the ability of existing bulkers to resist the flooding of one cargo hold, the MSC asked the ship-design subcommittee to consider restricting heavy cargoes for these ships. No action was taken on the question of adding forecastles to existing ships. The committee also asked two of its subcommittees to come up with a circular to provide guidance to ship’s personnel on the need to quickly abandon a bulker when even a single hold floods. In addition, the committee talked about banning alternate-hold loading of heavy cargoes in the full-load condition, particularly for older bulkers, but took no action, referring the matter to a subcommittee.

It was particularly galling to seamen’s representatives that existing bulkers weren’t even required to have free-fall lifeboats or to retrofit hatch covers. “Thousands of seafarers have died from bulker disasters,” Heindel said. “How many more must die before some action is taken towards these existing vessels?”

Although Bainbridge believes that a good start has been made to make new bulkers safer, he worries that the steam may have gone out of efforts to address problems with the existing ships. “It will take a few more well-advertised accidents with more bulk carriers before we can get people to look at some of the other issues,” he said.

One solution to the problems with older bulkers could be a phase-out program. Kidman said that if there is a year in which there are several casualties with a high loss of life, he would not be surprised to see the industry imitate the oil industry by adopting a phase-out of older bulkers.

If owners will not pay to maintain 15- to 20-year-old bulkers in a safe condition, then these older bulkers should go, Bainbridge said. “If those ships aren’t up to standard, get rid of them,” he said.

By Professional Mariner Staff