Safety at sea: a century of progress

Last edited: 1 April 2014

One hundred years ago, the shipping industry introduced its first international convention on safety. Known as SOLAS, it is still in use today. To mark the centenary, BP Magazine finds out more about the developments in safely shipping oil and gas

The sinking of the largest ship in the world – RMS Titanic – in the North Atlantic in 1912, with the loss of more than 1,500 lives, was a tragedy that remains part of popular culture a century later. It is remembered in books, films, songs and sayings. Less well known is the legacy for shipping itself – the fact that her dramatic sinking – and the public outcry that followed – prompted the major shipping nations of the world to take decisive action to address the issue of international maritime safety. 

The result was the first international convention on Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), first adopted in January 1914. It remains in place today as the foundation stone for the many advances made in the business of shipping people and goods safely around the world.

BP Shipping was launched as the British Tanker Company just one year after SOLAS was adopted. Equipped with its own naval architecture and engineering teams, it went on to build one of the world’s largest and most sophisticated merchant fleets and to play a part in the development and adoption of many of the most significant advances in oil and gas shipping.

Rules and regulators

The SOLAS Convention in its successive forms is generally regarded as the most important of all international treaties concerning the safety of merchant ships. It specifies minimum standards for the construction, equipment and operation of ships, compatible with their safety. The original 1914 version included provisions on safety of navigation, construction, radio-telegraphy, life-saving appliances and fire protection.

However, it was not enough to have a set of rules for a business that touched the seas and shores of so much of the world. The formation of the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organization (IMCO) in 1948, as part of the United Nations, brought the regulation of the safety of shipping into the oversight of an international body and framework. This framework provided the basis for shipping companies, such as the British Tanker Company and their representative bodies, to work together with governments, regulators and many other stakeholders on setting, measuring and improving standards. 

According to Adrian Howard, BP Shipping’s vice president of operations, “SOLAS is, without doubt, the most important piece of safety regulation in the maritime industry. It is the ultimate example of an industry sharing and implementing safety lessons learned on a global scale.”

IMCO’s successor – the International Maritime Organization (IMO) – continues to address issues that include safe navigation, search and rescue, wreck removal, ship recycling, the training and certification of seafarers, and piracy.
"SOLAS is, without doubt, the most important piece of safety regulation in the maritime industry. It is the ultimate example of an industry sharing and implementing safety lessons learned on a global scale."
- Adrian Howard

Policing the world fleet

Regulation, of course, is ineffective without measurement and enforcement. This was understood back in the 18th century, when so-called ‘classification societies’ grew out of the ship insurance market to provide reassurance about the condition of ships’ hulls and equipment. The societies evolved to ‘class’ ships as compliant with their specific technical rules and standards, and to routinely survey ships to confirm their continued conformance while in service.

With the emergence of IMCO, member governments took on responsibility for enforcing the provisions of SOLAS and other conventions as far as their own nationally-registered ships were concerned, and also set the penalties for infringements. But, when an offence occurs in international waters, the responsibility for imposing a penalty rests with the flag state – the country where the vessel has been registered.

In the 1970s, as the shipping industry fell into deep recession, concerns grew that some fleets were being switched from state control to re-register under ‘flags of convenience’, in countries where compliance with survey and certification duties were considered less demanding and costly. 

In 1982, an inter-governmental agreement introduced the concept of Port State Control (PSC). This allowed the inspection of foreign ships in other national ports by local PSC officers for the purpose of verifying their condition and compliance with relevant laws and regulations.

Ship owners and operators also conduct their own regimes for thoroughly inspecting owned and chartered ships. In the 1990s, a voluntary association of oil companies with an interest in shipping, including BP, known as the Oil Companies International Marine Forum, introduced the Ship Inspection Report (SIRE) programme. This provides a database that records each company’s individual inspection and auditing of the ships they own, operate, or charter. The database is open to other bodies concerned with vessel safety, such as terminal operators and government bodies. Currently, SIRE holds more than 22,500 reports on more than 8,000 vessels for inspections that have been conducted in the previous 12 months.

Today, ships face an array of industry, governmental and non-governmental inspections, audits and policing before they take to sea and this continues throughout their marine service.

Double hull ships

A ‘single hull’ design means that oil in the cargo tanks is separated from the seawater only by the ship’s bottom and side plates. A ‘double hull’ design (as shown here) involves surrounding the cargo tanks (two tanks in this illustration, with a slim dividing section down the middle) with a second internal plate at a sufficient distance from the external plate. The space created between the oil tank and the ship outer side plate is often filled with seawater as ballast. This space protects the inner tanks from low impact collision or stranding.

Seeing in the dark

Knowing where you are and the direction a vessel is headed – especially in darkness or bad weather – is important when you are navigating any kind of vessel. When it’s an oil tanker that is the length of more than 70 family-size cars laid bumper-to-bumper, navigational aids are essential.

Navigating by the stars or the magnetic pull of the Earth have been stalwarts of marine navigation for many centuries. Indeed, the humble sextant and magnetic compass remain standard equipment on oil tankers today, where, according to John Ridgway, BP Shipping’s chief executive and a former cadet and tanker master, “every cadet entering the BP programme becomes proficient in navigating with a sextant as part of his or her training.”

But the past 100 years have seen remarkable advances since the Titanic struck an unseen iceberg. The British Admiralty’s development of early sonar provided an accurate contour of the seabed over which the ship was sailing. Marconi’s invention in the 1920s of a device fitted to ships that could detect radio transmissions from land or other ships provided a ship’s navigator with a bearing line to determine direction. Soon, a network of radio beacon stations was in operation around the world, providing highly accurate navigational information, no matter the weather.

With radio navigation came radar, which quickly became a standard feature on large vessels. Radar is used to measure the bearing and distance of ships to prevent collision with other ships, to navigate, and to fix their position at sea when within range of shore or other fixed references, such as islands, buoys, and lightships. It wasn’t long before radar initiated vessel traffic service (VTS) control systems used to monitor and regulate ship movements in some of the world’s busiest waters.

By the 1970s, the development of satellite technology introduced navigation by Global Positioning Systems (GPS). This has spurred the introduction of a range of new navigational tools, such as chart plotters, which integrate GPS data with electronic navigational charts, or search and rescue emergency locators. In the 1990s, the Automatic Identification System (AIS) was developed as a technology to avoid collisions between large vessels at sea that are not within range of radio systems. 

What is remarkable about the bridge of a modern oil tanker today, according to Ridgway, “is the way that the technologies from different ages of maritime history – from the compass to the satellite – are all still in use alongside each other.”

Exhausting explosions

While now relatively rare, the consequences of explosion aboard a tanker can be severe, especially when loading, discharging or cleaning the vessel’s oil and oil product tanks. The widespread introduction of inert gas systems can take much credit for transforming safety in this aspect of tanker operation.

Inert gas systems (IGS) involve the replacement of air and hydrocarbon gases in the space above the oil and oil products in the ship’s tanks, using an oxygen-depleted gas, principally nitrogen and carbon dioxide, which is supplied from either cleaned flue gas from a ship’s boilers or a dedicated inert gas generator. The virtual elimination of oxygen from the tank atmosphere substantially reduces the risk of flammability.

Such technology was not new – it had first found application in oil refineries and was adapted by the Sun Oil Company in the 1930s, after one of its vessels exploded during tank cleaning. However, it was not until after the Second World War that the work of Dr Charles Sutton and Dr Ken Brummage at BP’s Group Research Centre in Sunbury was instrumental in changing the tanker industry debate, from a focus on eradicating possible causes of ignition onboard to methods of neutralising the gases that could fuel an explosion in the first place. 

Convinced of the potential of IGS to protect against explosions and to reduce corrosion in tanks, a full-scale trial was instigated on three BP ships – British Prestige, British Skill and British Sovereign in 1961. The results persuaded BP to take an industry lead and mandate IGSs for all of its new-build ship orders – which it extended to retro-fitting on the entire fleet after an explosion in 1966 on an older tanker – British Crown – in Qatar.

BP’s work was soon to broaden into an industry-wide study of tanker explosions, which the British Tanker Company led in association with the Chamber of Shipping. The initiative was to receive the prestigious Samuel Baxter Prize from the Royal Institution of Naval Architects in 1973 and IGS was eventually to become accepted industry practice and mandatory under IMO regulations.

For Chris Bailey, BP Shipping’s technical vice president: “IGS can be counted among the most important contributions made to safety on oil and gas carriers over the past 100 years. BP patented the work it had completed simply to ensure the design was properly implemented on different ship designs and modes of operation, but, simultaneously, granted its free use to the industry.”

Trial run

The RMS Titanic leaves Belfast for sea trials in 1912. It would sink on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York after hitting an iceberg. The first international convention on Safety of Life at Sea was introduced two years later, as a direct consequence of the tragedy.

Preventing pollution

In 1989, the Exxon Valdez tanker loaded with Alaskan North Slope crude oil, bound for Long Beach, California, grounded at Bligh Reef, rupturing eight of her 11 cargo tanks and spilling crude oil into the waters of Prince William Sound. No human lives were lost, but the natural losses were considerable.

The scaling up in the 1960s of tankers able to carry hundreds of thousands of tons of crude oil meant that accidents now had the potential to do considerable damage.  The loss of the 120,000-ton Torrey Canyon tanker in 1967, off the Scilly Isles, had already demonstrated that tanker safety and oil pollution were bound together in a cause and effect relationship. 

Torrey Canyon and the resulting International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) of 1973 and 1978 brought about directly, if slowly, a host of features to increase the safety of large tankers and reduce the consequences when accidents arose. These included limitations on tank size, structural design for heavy weather, inert gas, improved tank cleaning, traffic control in channels and estuaries, and finally, the total segregation between cargo and ballast in the ship.

But for the oil and shipping industry, Exxon Valdez was to represent a new watershed. The US Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act, requiring a phase-out of single-hulled oil tankers in US waters by 2010. IMO requirements for the introduction of double hulling were accelerated in response. Two further oil spills – from the Erika and the Prestige – in European waters led to changes in EU law and the IMO mandated the phasing-out of all single-hull tankers by 2015.

While the number of large and small spillages of oil from tankers has decreased significantly over the past four decades, Torrey Canyon and Exxon Valdez remain stark reminders of the need for considerable vigilance in the transport of oil and gas by sea.

People and procedures

Exxon Valdez was significant for another reason. It underlined the human factor present in many shipping accidents, and the need to ensure that mariners had the right capabilities. A study of claims by a shipping insurance mutual found more than half of all major claims resulted from human error, while one third were related to structural, mechanical and equipment failure. It was clear that only by adopting a fully integrated approach, which established rigour in all aspects surrounding the operation of a ship, could safety be deeply embedded within the industry.

In 1993, the International Management Code for the Safe Operation of Ships and for Pollution Prevention (the ISM Code) was introduced. It established safety-management objectives and required a safety management system (SMS) to be established by the ship owner or any person who has assumed responsibility for operating the ship.

The ISM Code requires commitment from the very top levels of management, a clear set of policies and established procedures for what is done onboard the ship, during normal operations and in emergency situations, and for conducting both internal and external audits and implementing corrective procedures to ensure the ship is operating in accordance with procedures. Perhaps most significantly, a designated person ashore (DPA) is now appointed to serve as the link between the ships and the most senior management ashore and to verify the SMS implementation.

Each ISM-compliant ship is audited, first by the company and then every two to three years by the flag state. Once SMS is verified, and it is working and effectively implemented, the ship is issued with a Safety Management Certificate – critical to its licence to operate within the industry.

For BP Shipping’s Iain Bruce, health and safety manager and DPA: “There is a close synergy with the BP operating management system (OMS), which provides the basis for managing operations in a systematic way. We can bring useful insights from more than a decade working in compliance with the shipping industry ISM Code, which has now established a common standard for operating excellence and underpins the modern oil and gas shipping industry.”

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