It is well known that accident fatalities in the maritime industry significantly exceed land based industries on an averaged basis, even taking into account the construction sector. IHS Markit’s The State of Maritime Safety Report 2020, providing a snapshot of maritime safety over a five-year period (2015-2019), states ‘In regard to the deaths that transpired in the maritime industry over the last five years, 310 occurred at sea, 118 deaths took place in restricted waters, 38 took place in ports/harbours/docks, and 30 occurred in shipyards/drydocks’. Thankfully, IHS Markit’s data shows that the industry saw a small but steady decline in casualty and total losses between 2015 and 2019, despite the world fleet continuing to grow, which in part is credited to improvements in maritime safety and practices.
In this context it is heartening to hear of innovation and development in the maritime safety arena. Last week, Tradewinds reported on Helm Innovation, a young enterprise based in London, launched by UK Royal College of Arts graduate Madeleine Dowd, which seeks to “provide safety through design”. Helm Innovation’s current project is a ‘cross lock system’ which seeks to improve the stability of pilot ladders, which are used by those in the maritime industry every day to transfer from one vessel to another (most often from pilot boats, launches, water taxis, etc). One doesn’t have to go very far to find tragic illustration of the difficulties of persons transferring between vessels via pilot ladders, with two Sandy Hook pilots being killed in incidents in 2020 alone.
As maritime lawyers we usually travel to our desks by lift; the biggest threat usually being the awkward chatter when the lift is full. Fortunately for us, we are unlikely to have to negotiate the risks of climbing a pilot ladder in uncertain weather, just to get to work. However, many of us will have boarded vessels by pilot ladder at one time or another and this solicitor (having boarded a casualty vessel by pilot ladder outside of Singapore’s anchorage at night in the humidity of the tropics) can testify that the arduousness of climbing the pilot ladder is only exceeded by the difficulty of catching it in the first place, as the deck of the launch bobs metres up and down in the swell.
There is no doubt that improvement in the safety of design of the seafarer’s equivalent of a lift ought to be encouraged, and we look forward to further designs from Helm Innovation and similar enterprises, which make the everyday lives of seafarers that much safer.