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The World’s Cargo Vessels Are Aging: Are Maritime Workers At Risk?

The World’s Cargo Vessels Are Aging: Are Maritime Workers At Risk?

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May 2, 2023

Cargo vessels serve as the backbone of global trade, transporting goods across the world’s oceans. However, many of these vessels are aging, which raises concerns about their seaworthiness and the safety of their crews.

According to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the average age of commercial cargo vessels worldwide is over 20 years. This means that many of these ships have been in operation for decades, exposing them to wear and tear, as well as outdated technology.

Just how long can a commercial cargo ship last? The lifespan of a cargo vessel may vary depending on several factors, including maintenance, the materials used in its construction, and the conditions in which it operates. Generally, a vessel can remain seaworthy for 25 to 30 years, but some may last longer if well-maintained.

Even with proper maintenance, however, aging cargo vessels may experience issues that affect their seaworthiness—and the safety of their crews. For example, corrosion can weaken the hull, and mechanical components may wear out, leading to breakdowns or failures. Older vessels may also lack modern safety features, such as fire suppression systems or navigation aids, which could increase the risk of accidents.

  • Hull Corrosion: Over time, exposure to seawater and other elements can cause rust and other forms of corrosion that weaken a cargo vessel’s structure. This can lead to issues such as hull breaches or flooding, potentially resulting in the sinking of the vessel. Proper maintenance and regular inspections can help mitigate the risk of corrosion, but they require significant investment and resources.
  • Mechanical Failures: As ships age, their engines, propulsion systems, and other critical components can become worn out and prone to breakdowns. This can lead to operational delays, malfunctions, or even catastrophic failures that could endanger crew members and cargo.
  • Modern Safety Features & Technology: In some cases, older cargo vessels may also lack modern safety features or technology, which can put them at a disadvantage compared to newer vessels. For example, many older ships may not have advanced navigation aids, which could lead to collisions or groundings in poor weather conditions or low visibility.

When aging cargo vessels are improperly maintained or negligently operated, they can present significant risks to every person on board. 

The loss of El Faro is a tragic example of the potential risks associated with aging cargo vessels. El Faro was a 40-year-old container ship that sank in Hurricane Joaquin in 2015, resulting in the loss of all 33 crew members. Upon investigating the incident, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) uncovered a laundry list of safety issues that contributed to the vessel’s loss, some of which included the ship’s lack of modern safety features. El Faro‘s navigation equipment was outdated, and the captain had limited access to weather information, which may have led him to underestimate the severity of the approaching hurricane.

El Faro stood no chance of weathering a storm like Joaquin. 

All 33 of her crew members paid with their lives.

In a similar incident more than three decades earlier, the SS Marine Electric sank when she encountered a severe winter storm while carrying coal from Norfolk, Virginia, to Somerset, Massachusetts. On February 12, 1983, the vessel and 31 of her 34 crew members were lost to the storm after seawater entered the hold and caused the coal to shift. The 38-year-old vessel had been poorly maintained and modified over the years, with a new deck and hatch covers that were not properly secured. 

When water entered the hold, Marine Electric listed, lost propulsion, and ultimately capsized.

The sinking of Marine Electric led to significant changes in maritime safety regulations, including the creation of the United States Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Center, which is responsible for ensuring the safety of commercial vessels operating in U.S. waters. The disaster also led to the adoption of the International Safety Management Code, which sets out minimum safety standards for ships.

The loss of El Faro and her crew led to a renewed focus on the safety of older cargo vessels and the need for stricter regulations and enforcement to ensure their seaworthiness. The IMO and other organizations have called for more comprehensive safety standards and inspections, as well as increased investment in the maintenance and modernization of older vessels.

Despite these concerns, the retirement of older vessels can be challenging due to economic and environmental factors. Many older vessels remain in operation because they are less expensive to operate than newer vessels, and the cost of decommissioning and disposing of them can be significant. Additionally, many older vessels are still capable of transporting cargo and are essential to trade in certain regions of the world.

Bringing decades-old cargo ships to current safety standards can also fall under a somewhat grey area of the law in certain circumstances. In general, ships are subject to the safety requirements in force at the time of their construction, but they may be required to retrofit new safety features if deemed necessary for the vessel’s safe operation. 

To address these challenges, some organizations have proposed programs to encourage the safe and responsible recycling of older vessels. These programs would incentivize shipowners to retire older vessels and replace them with newer, more efficient, and environmentally friendly vessels. They would also ensure that older vessels are recycled responsibly, minimizing the impact on the environment and protecting the health and safety of workers involved in the recycling process.

The IMO sets international standards for the safety and operation of ships, including cargo vessels. These standards are updated periodically to reflect advances in technology and to address emerging safety concerns. Ships built before the implementation of these standards are not required to meet them retroactively, but they may be subject to other regulations depending on their age and the flag state they operate under.

Some countries have their own regulations regarding the operation of older ships. For example, the U.S. Coast Guard requires all ships operating in U.S. waters to comply with its regulations, regardless of their age. This means that older ships may be required to retrofit new safety features, such as advanced fire suppression systems or ballast water treatment systems, if deemed necessary by the USCG.

In some cases, exemptions may be granted to older ships if they are found to be operating in a safe and environmentally responsible manner. For example, the IMO’s International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) allows for exemptions to certain safety requirements for ships that are over 20 years old but have been well-maintained and are deemed to be in good condition.

However, exemptions are not automatic and must be granted on a case-by-case basis after a thorough inspection and review process. The idea is to strike a balance between ensuring the safety of the ship, its crew, and the environment, while also recognizing the economic and operational realities of older vessels. 

The risks associated with aging vessels cannot be ignored. Industry stakeholders must work to improve safety regulations and standards to better protect maritime workers and the environment. This includes efforts to phase out older vessels and replace them with more modern and efficient models.

Arnold & Itkin is known worldwide as a leader in maritime injury law. The firm has taken on formidable opponents after the worst maritime disasters, including the successful representation of more than one-third of the Deepwater Horizon crew and three widows of El Faro crew members. When seamen and offshore workers’ lives are put in danger because companies place profits over all else, Arnold & Itkin stands up and fights to set things right. No matter what. 

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