Panama Canal Tugboat Captains Face Disciplinary Action After Raising Safety Concerns in New Neopanamax Locks

Panama Canal tugboat
A Neopanamax containership transits through the new locks of the Expanded Panama Canal with assistance from a tugboat. Photo: Panama Canal Authority

Update: Panama Canal Says Tugboats Captains Broke the Law

The Panama Canal Authority (ACP) is not providing proper staffing and equipment for new larger locks, putting workers and safe shipping at risk, according to tug captains who escort NeoPanamax containerships and LNG carriers through the recently-expanded Panama Canal.

Rather than address safety issues that the tugboat captains and others say contributed to recent accidents, the ACP has now begun disciplinary proceedings for 22 Panama Canal tugboat captains who raised questions about short-staffing and crew fatigue. 

Last month, the ACP announced sanctions against certain tugboat captains who they say were responsible for a brief work stoppage earlier in April that interrupted the transit of vessels. 

The tugboat captains, who are members of the Union de Capitanes y Oficiales de Cubierta (UCOC), raised their safety concerns following a recent decision by the ACP to reduce crew size of the tugboats from three deckhands down to two while transiting the new locks. Tug captains and other crewmembers also have questioned the wisdom of daily shifts that regularly exceed 12-14 hours.

Unlike the Canal’s original locks that relied primarily on locomotives or “mules” moving alongside the locks to guide vessels, the new Neopanamax locks require the use two tugs. 

“This is a very complex operation, shoehorning large ships into a small space with little margin,” said Captain Don Marcus, President of the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots. “This was dangerous work before ACP lowered standards. Long hours combined with fewer crewmembers, using underpowered tugs, is making a bad situation worse,” he added. The UCOC is an affiliate of the U.S.-based International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots.

In April 2017, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Tampa collided with the tugboat Cerro Santiago during transit through the Panama Canal. Investigators from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found that overwork and fatigue were significant contributors to the incident.

In November 2017, Osvaldo de la Espada, a veteran canal worker with 24 years experience maneuvering ships through the locks, died from head injuries during a line-handling incident at the Agua Clara locks.

“The Panama Canal Authority spent billions to expand the Canal but has failed to hire the necessary number of people and buy the equipment they need to run it properly,” said Marcus. “If you don’t have enough hands on deck, you are putting lives at risk.”

The International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), representing 19.7 million workers in 140 countries, has called on the ACP and the government of Panama to take immediate action to protect worker safety. “The lack of appropriate action from ACP poses a serious threat to the safe operation of the Canal, the workers and thousands of vessels and crew that transit annually,” stated the IFT Executive Board in an Emergency Motion passed during its meeting in London on April 20.

The ITF also has filed a complaint with the International Labour Organization (ILO), a United Nations agency. The U.S.-based Maritime Labor Alliance, which is composed of unions representing deck officers, engineers and unions such as the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), also has voiced its opposition to the lowering of safety standards in the Canal. ILWU represents the ship pilots who take the wheel of each vessel that transits the Panama Canal.

The International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots, on behalf of its members, also has formally requested a rapid response to safety concerns from the Panamanian Ambassador to the United States, Emanuel González-Revilla.

The ACP spent $5 billion to expand the Panama Canal with new locks designed to accommodate the new 1,200-foot “NeoPanamax” ships. The “Third Set of Locks”, a key component of the expansion project, opened to traffic in June of 2016. The new locks require vessels to be escorted by two 100-foot tugboats inside new locks that are only 1,400 feet long, making for a tight fit that requires updated, fully functioning tugboats and sufficient staffing to operate them. 

“ACP reduced crews without talking to the experts who guide container ships and LNG carriers through the locks and now they’re threatening these tugboat captains for blowing the whistle on their unsafe operations,” said Marcus. “We can’t afford to wait until the next person gets injured or killed or a collision forces the shutdown of the Canal. The safety issues and violations of worker rights in Panama must be addressed immediately. Beyond worker safety, the safe operation of ships transiting the canal is a security issue.”

See Also: Panama Canal Says Tugboats Captains Broke the Law