It’s a good news bad news thing

For nearly 20 years now, Canada, and many jurisdictions, have steadily migrated to a Safety Management System, where cash strapped government essentially downloaded responsibility of enforcing safety regulations onto industry itself. Companies love it because, well, safety glasses, cliché slogans, and dubious reporting present fewer impediments to their cash flows, than knowledgeable safety inspectors working on behalf of the common good – the government and the citizen they represent.

Occasionally, major accidents shed some light on these practices and their shortcomings, but typically the whole system is a bit of large bureaucratic blob, dragging down safety to the lowest common denominator. Once in a while, headlines will jump out of this SMS blob, like El Faro and Lac Megantic, but the true culprit can be easily be lost in the many layers safety failures lie in, and thus remain easily manageable by proper “communications” spin doctors.

A regulator’s responsibility has now shifted to an oversight capacity, so they say, but of course with aggressive industry lobbying and dwindling budgets – oversight is kind of a dirty word. In the Canadian marine industry (as well as air, rail, road and pipeline), Transport Canada takes the prideful role of overseeing the “Recognized Organization” (RO), a class society (with a dubious business model), that itself oversees a ship operator’s Safety Management System, which oversees the process and the actors carrying out the work onboard a ship. Seems simple enough.

The ideas is that the bureaucratic exercise of designing a process, and its “checks and balances” should be preventing any possibility of error in the system – so essentially it’s a paper exercise, where the companies essentially sets the rules, and if no one notices, you’re good to go. Any actual safety deficiencies should take a hell of a long time, or a drastic accident, to ever reach a point where someone in authority says, hey wait a minute, you can’t do that.

Then the idea is “how much oversight can one or two, inadequately trained inspector really perform”, if they don’t leave the office, or don’t really have the time to sit and observe how the operation performs, beyond the paperwork, because the whole department has no overtime budget?

Before this system came into effect, marine inspectors would come onboard a ship at least annually, and could in large part, determine the effectiveness of a company’s safety attitude or probe more accurately perceived areas of needs, and or pursue remedy from this. There was history, there was a rapport, there was no need to rush; perhaps, there was too much burden on companies by overzealous types.

Obviously, I have a hesitant attitude towards this SMS system. I am not convinced that it is a sustainable philosophy in the long run. I believe government will be forced to reasserts common sense regulation and enforcement. I am of the belief that the welfare of humans, and the natural world, ought to take a priority over the reckless exploitation for the benefit of the few.

In researching, I have come across an interesting report from the International Maritime Organization (IMO) that sort of reinforces the ideas of the SMS system, mind you the enforcement still remain out of reach. With TC overseeing the RO, and the RO overseeing the company, who oversees the ship and its crew, there is also a new level, above TC – and it’s called IMO IMSAS.

In 2007, a delegation of inspectors from various nations, visited Transport Canada’s Marine Safety office under the auspices of the IMO to perform an audit. I can imagine some mariners, who are under constant audits, sport a sly smile upon hearing this. In that visit, the auditors were able to identify numerous observations that aptly identified very serious shortcomings at TCMS, which we, as professional seafarers and clearly being affected by.

One observation they made, was the lack of resources at Transport Canada to draw up meaningful regulations in a timely fashion. Those dealing with the STCW2010 Ship Safety Bulletin fiasco, and the lack of proper regulations drawn up to meet the Manila Amendments, will certainly recognize this observation as being dead on. Marine Personnel Regulations have yet to come out, despite them required by the IMO to be out in 2012, now 2018, they are barely on the horizon. Download this Observation notice issued by the IMO, here.

A second observation made by this IMO audit team: ” The qualification and training process for marine inspectors lacks sufficient process documentation to ensure consistent application on a national level.” Any professional seafarer in Canada will attest to the only consistency at TCMS office, is that you are going to get as many, sometime opposing, interpretations of an answer as the number of inspector you ask. This produces a system with very little “quality control” and is extremely frustrating for all involved. Download this Observation notice issued by the IMO, here.

Click to Download complete IMO audit of TCMS

Above, are links to the two IMO – VMSAS, OBSERVATION / NON-CONFORMITY NOTICE Transport Canada was issued, the full report is also here for download. With the current situation at TCMS, and the lapse time since these observations were made, one can surmise that the audit team was “bang on” in identifying these shortcomings. However, these findings were presented some nearly ten years ago, and evidently no apparent action was taken.

Like I said at the beginning of this post, it’s a good news, bad news thing; the Safety Management System seems to work. Unfortunately, as it is my experience, the SMS really has “no teeth” in enforcing anything. TCMS is now overdue for another IMO audit (they are expected every 7 years), should be interesting to see if the IMO will revisit these findings, and decide to threaten TC with… harsh language… maybe.

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