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Unlocking Improved Safety and Standards for Dry Bulk Shipping

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By Luke Fisher 07-10-2020 06:11:00

The shipping industry is facing a truly unprecedented challenge with COVID-19; a challenge that nobody could have possibly anticipated. The circumstances we’ve seen so far in 2020 are shaping a ‘new normal’ not just for our sector, but for the entire global economy. Shipping is used to tackling adversity, having moulded an operational mindset in the aftermath of the 2008-09 financial crisis. 

We must now use this new adversity to further mould a mindset that fully takes into account some of the most important factors behind every voyage; safety, governance and maintaining robust operational standards. 
 
The latest set of uncertainties facing shipping builds on the growing societal pressure for our sector to evolve and adapt. In particular, this pressure was focusing on the requirement for robust and ethical governance and higher standards of safety in shipping. As our entire industry comes under greater scrutiny, it is important that we use the opportunity presented to us now to collaborate and drive the increase in standards, safety and welfare that shipping needs.
 
That is not to say that our sector has not made progress to date. The State of Maritime Safety report, published in April 2020, shows that total loss incidents have continued to decline over the last five years, dropping from 0.16% for the world fleet vessel count in 2015 to 0.09% in 2019. This trend has also been seen in the dry bulk sector, where there is now a general acceptance that vessels are safer than they were a decade ago.

Dry bulk feels these industry safety concerns particularly acutely, with high-profile incidents in recent memory reminding us of the consequences of not taking safety and risk seriously. A mix of unique cargo, different operating patterns and some underinvestment have all combined to heighten the requirement for us to chart a new path for widescale improvements in dry bulk safety. 

Mechanisms and structures such as the ISM codes are important waypoints on that journey and have been successful in elevating standards. However, when it comes to improving safety and operational standards on the existing dry bulk fleet, we must be clear that no ceiling exists to the potential for safety improvements.
 
Many mariners and people who work in the industry will have terrible memories of where they have seen friends and colleagues killed, maimed or injured by lapses in safety on board. Furthermore, recent events have shone a light on just how psychologically demanding it is to operate at sea for months at a time. It is an injustice to seafarers to have safety anxieties alongside the existing burdens of working at sea. 

An industry aspiration, therefore, must be to see the highest standards of safety and welfare beyond base compliance, and to ensure that our seafarers are getting the support they need. 
 
While the shipping and dry bulk sector is in a better position than a decade ago, we have seen a divergence in the way certain shipping segments approach risk. One example where this can easily be observed is when comparing tanker to dry bulk fleets. 
 
Tankers, thanks to their links to the oil industry and with the risky nature of the cargoes they carry, have had to develop robust operating practices to minimize risk across all corners across their supply chain. We can see this mindset and success in groups such as OCIMF, whose Tanker Management and Self-Assessment (TMSA) Programme has helped to drive a step-change in the tanker sector by providing operators with an introspective, self-assessment approach to safety improvement.  

Despite the clear and similar risks posed to dry bulk shipping, there has not existed as much pressure to build more robust operating practices that go beyond base compliance.  
 
With this need for a mechanism to help drive continuous improvement, the context and purpose for similar approaches such as the Dry Bulk Management Standard is clear. By convening a group of like-minded owners, managers and risk management professionals with a shared passion in improving the dry bulk sector, a set of standards and guidelines to help spur on reflective improvement has been created and is currently in draft format. 
  
Much in the same way the TMSA allows tanker managers and operators to adopt the self-assessment approach in improving standards beyond base compliance, DBMS aims to help owners establish a roadmap towards excellence that goes far beyond base compliance. 

By categorising 30 individual subject areas across four sections, it will allow users to be robust enough in self-identifying where they can improve and benchmark against their peers in the DBMS social space. This reinforces the fact that to improve a sector, improvements cannot be contained at individual ship and fleet level, but must be shared in an engaging, collaborative way where best practice can spread easily. 
 
The establishment of the DBMS represents a new way of thinking within the dry bulk sector. Introspection and collaboration are the watchwords. Intuitively, this makes sense, as owners and operators know their systems better than any external third party. With self-assessment tools, they become their own inspector and examiner, giving them more tailored ownership of the pathway to improvement. 

DBMS has been designed with 30 subject areas across four broad operating areas: people, plant, performance and process. These standards and operating areas examine and support inspections and improvements in everything from procedures and checklists through to ways to measure, assess and improve safety and environmental performance as well as operational efficiency. 

Part of the transition needed in the sector is about organizational culture. By developing the right safety and welfare culture, and by making it a social endeavour, we can create an industry where safety is thought about at every opportunity, and not simply when it is reviewed during statutory inspections and audits. 
  
The establishment of the DBMS represents a new style of multi-sector, multi-approach and multi-discipline thinking for shipping. By creating a set of criteria that has been inspired by the tanker industry and serves dry bulk first and foremost, we have started to foster real passion within the sector for safety improvement.

Importantly, DBMS is still in draft format, and the industry’s feedback is a vital next step on the journey. Indeed, this approach is at the heart of DBMS, with iterative improvements based on the realities being faced by owners and operators key for success. So far, there has been a diverse range of inputs from owners, class societies, port state controls and regulatory authorities. 

Our industry does face an uncertain 2020 and near future. That is why involvement and engagement in DBMS now is so important, as it will help to drive us all on the journey towards the increase in standards, safety and welfare that shipping needs.

Luke Fisher is the project lead for DBMS.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.