Is SOLAS Evolving and What About Industrial Personnel?

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By Mark Sales

The Safety of Life at Sea Convention (SOLAS) began, after the First World War, as a standard for safety equipment and construction for the liners common on international (country to country) routes. If we categorize those deep sea routes as “traditional”, most of the passenger trade of the early 20th century has moved from ocean liners to aircraft; passenger ships now are mostly ferries and cruise passenger ships. Cargo ships have also changed to include tankers and container ships. Many look at this and feel that the underlying basis of SOLAS is unchanged.

Some people look at both the progression and the growth (increasing number of chapters and spin-offs) of SOLAS and wonder where it is going. Without going into all the “new” chapters of SOLAS in detail those added since 1974 are; Safety Management (IX), High speed craft (X), Maritime security (XI-1 and XI-2), “Additional” safety measures for bulk carriers (XII), Member state audit scheme (XIII) and Polar code (XIV). This proliferation is accelerating when you understand that chapter IX was added in 1997, so five have been added not in 47 years but in 20. The member state audit scheme, for example only came into force this year. IMO’s Marine Safety Committee (MSC the committee responsible for amending SOLAS) has initiated work on a new chapter to cover the carriage of “industrial personnel” tentatively numbered Chapter XV.

It is now almost easier to describe SOLAS by what it does not cover; ships under 500 gross tons (GT based on International Tonnage Convention of 1969, no longer Administrations’ ‘regulatory tonnage’), ships on domestic (non-international routes – although in the context of some of the other IMO instruments this is debateable), fishing vessels and naval ships.

The “ease” with which IMO can amend SOLAS by “tacit consent” means that the only limit is the jurisdiction of IMO. The UN’s IMO convention describes IMO’s mission as, to provide machinery for cooperation among Governments in the field of governmental regulation and practices relating to technical matters of all kinds affecting shipping engaged in international trade; to encourage and facilitate the general adoption of the highest practicable standards in matters concerning maritime safety, efficiency of navigation and prevention and control of marine pollution from ships”.

Unfortunately the ease with which IMO can set up a new convention is not counter-balanced by any efficiency in getting rid of instruments that are no longer desirable. IMO is global and therefore can’t admit to errors, lest it detract from their other work. Torrelimos was intended to be a treaty concerning fishing craft, it has never achieved acceptance through ratification and therefore it can never be amended. It is thirty years old, a couple of years ago a conference was held in Cape Town with the idea that if a conference agreed to certain amendments that are intended to take effect upon ratification of that treaty, it might fix shortcomings of the original treaty and thereby gain enough acceptance for ratification. It hasn’t worked yet.

What is working for SOLAS is the shift in perspectives. Just making ships carry adequate lifesaving appliances (LSA which has actually been spun out of SOLAS into the LSA Code) made the ships since the twenties safer. The ISM Code (Chapter IX) has empowered mariners to take a more proactive role in promulgating the safety of their ships. The two security chapters were in response to terror threats since 11 September 2001, which are really a reflection of where civilization is today. The Polar Code is almost aspirational at this point, kind of a star trek leap into the little known Polar Regions where navigation and communications are degraded. As such Chapter XIV is a place-marker for future experience to be noted.

The proposed Chapter XV, industrial personnel is actually another marker for the future. The world’s oceans’ exploitation has become more and more critical as the sources of raw materials and energy. If IMO does not make a series of sound decisions to encourage safe, exploitable and scalable rules that make the most of the human potential engaged in those industrial operations; other best practice standards may take their place and erode IMO’s authority and the credibility of their other standards.

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Source: Mark Sales – Maritime Regulatory Consultant

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