Union: Fatigue of Panama Canal tug captains 'a disaster waiting to happen'

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The following is text of a news release from the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF):

(LONDON) — The International Transport Workers’ Federation has warned that a major accident on the Panama Canal could be imminent, as the results of an independent report released Thursday into work practices highlights serious health and safety concerns related to the fatigue of tugboat captains.

The ITF and affiliate Union de Capitanes y Oficiales de Cubierta (UCOC) have been locked in a protracted struggle with the Panama Canal Authority (PCA) over minimum safe manning, access to training and equipment, and hazardous working conditions on tugboats in the new neo-Panamax locks.

“This independent study confirms what the UCOC, and the ITF, have consistently said to the Panama Canal Authority: that the significant reduction in manning, compounded by the excessive overtime being required of tugboat captains, are jeopardizing the safety of workers, including Panamanian citizens, and risk exposing them to a potential environmental disaster," said Stephen Cotton, ITF general secretary.

“Tugboats play a key role in the transit of large vessels with hazardous cargo through the narrow and complex waterways of the Panama Canal, and the potential for a catastrophic incident mounts with the increase in a tugboat captain’s fatigue. Fatigue, anxiety and health-associated risks are exposing the tugboat captains to unnecessary hazards, while also endangering other seafarers transiting the canal. There is also increased risk to vessels passing through the locks and the canal’s own facilities. This situation needs the full attention of the shipping community, before disaster strikes,” said Cotton.

The study was commissioned by the ITF following numerous failed attempts to engage the PCA in talks to reach solutions to the ongoing health and safety concerns.

ITF inland navigation chairman Yuri Sukhorukov called on the PCA to open dialogue to resolve the issues: “Once again, we invite the PCA to sit down with the ITF and UCOC to agree a path forward to improve the safety of transit operations and working conditions of tugboat captains.

“As the report found, PCA’s failure to address previous fatigue-related incidents, like the tugboat collision in 2017, its lack of cooperation with international authorities investigating the incident, and its lack of adherence to agreements governing hours of work and oversight of tugboat captains’ health, manifest a safety culture that increases rather than reduces the risk of accidents,” said Sukhorukov.

Dave Heindel, ITF seafarers section chairman, also said that PCA cannot ignore these serious health and safety risks: “If the PCA continues to refuse to discuss solutions and continues its attempts to delegitimize the union and ignore and refute these serious health and safety concerns, then any casualties or loss of life from a disaster in the locks will be on their conscience.”

The full report can be downloaded here and a summary can be downloaded here.

Report authors

The study, "Fatigue among Panama Canal Tugboat Captains," was written by Dr. Barry Strauch and Dr. Isabel Gonzales, experts in human error, accident causation and occupational medicine.

Strauch has over 30 years of experience with the National Transportation Safety Board investigating accidents in the U.S. and overseas, as a national resource specialist and as a supervisory investigator. He is an internationally recognized an expert in human error and accident causation in maritime, aviation and railroad accidents. He has a bachelor's degree in psychology from New York University and a doctorate in educational psychology from Pennsylvania State University.

He is the author of "Investigating Human Error: Incidents, Accidents, and Complex Systems," (Second Edition, Taylor and Francis, 2017), a textbook that is used in accident investigation classes in colleges and universities throughout the world. In addition, he has written articles that have published in several scientific journals such as Human Factors, Safety Science, and the Journal of Cognitive Engineering and Decision Making. He has presented papers to scientific and industry venues around the world.

Strauch has considerable experience training accident investigators as well. He oversaw the National Transportation Safety Board's training of aviation accident investigators and marine accident investigators, each for over 10 years. He has also taught witness interviewing, human factors, and accident investigation preparation in the U.S., Singapore, Taiwan, and Germany.

Strauch has experience in all areas of accident investigation, with particular focus on human factors and human error. He can provide expertise on equipment design, training, oversight and supervision, personnel selection, and decision making and their role, or absence, in the causation of accidents. He has recently served as an expert witness in two cases, one a transportation accident and the other an occupational injury.

Gonzales has over 35 years of experience in occupational medicine. She graduated from the University of Panama in general medicine, and specialized in post-graduate studies in occupational medicine at the National University of Buenos Aires in Argentina.

Gonzales was the director of the Panama National Program on Occupational Health from 1990 to 1995. From 2008, Gonzales has lectured at the various universities in health sciences, safety at work, occupational health and safety and occupational medicine.

She has contributed to a number of specialized medical publications on workplace medicine, conditions and prevention. She has attended a number of international seminars as an expert on occupational medicine and health risk assessment.

Gonzales’ dedication and expertise on occupational health and safety was recognized with her appointment to president of Panama Association of Specialists on Occupational Medicine.

By Professional Mariner Staff