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What are the latest maritime safety trends and how are safety regulations evolving?

A new safety report from DNV and Lloyd’s List Intelligence highlights the need to cultivate improved safety standards in the maritime industry against the backdrop of fundamental industrial shifts such as decarbonization and digitalization.

The latest safety report by DNV and Lloyd’s List Intelligence – “Maritime safety trends 2012–2022: Advancing a culture of safety in a changing industry landscape” – provides a comprehensive overview of the latest safety trends in the maritime industry. With the industry changing rapidly as it strives to reach ambitious decarbonization goals new technologies need to be safely implemented. 

Overall negative safety trend in 2021 and 2022 in maritime

Safety statistics for the report were provided by Lloyd’s List Intelligence, revealing some negative trends. The total number of safety incidents involving vessels larger than 100 gross tons reached 2,615 in 2022, representing an annual increase of 9%. Safety incidents also grew by 7% in 2021, following mainly negative growth in the preceding decade. A large part of these increases can be attributable to a post-pandemic increase in seaborne trade. However, this does not tell the full story and the data suggest some more fundamental issues at play.  

In general, analysis of the number of incidents for the period 2012-2022 shows a mixed picture. Incidents involving vessels in collision showed a positive trend until economies reopened after lockdown. The number of fires appear to be rising, but the number of piracy incidents is falling.

Reports of wrecks and strandings has also fallen, as did the number of vessels damaged by conflict, until 2022. Shipping has suffered in the battle for Ukraine, with more ships lost last year than in the rest of the decade combined.

Machine damage or failure has been the main driver of this surge in safety incidents, growing by 24% in 2021 and 13% in 2022. A number of different types of machine deficiencies, such as lost rudder or fouled propellor, fall under this category, which accounted for 55% of safety incidents in 2021 and 57% of incidents in 2022.  

Data leads to more questions than answers

Digging into these numbers leads to more questions than answers. It is not known what proportion of these machinery damage or failure incidents occurred at port or in open waters. Questions also need to be asked about whether incidents were fixed by crew members or whether they progressed to collision, grounding or sinking incidents.  

It is also possible that an improved attitude of incident reporting drove these numbers up. If true, this would be a positive development, pointing to improvements in the safety culture of ship organizations, something that the DNV report strongly advocates.

Machinery damage or failure likely to continue to drive numbers in the future

Machine damage or failure is expected to continue to be the biggest driver of safety incidents in the future, with technological change a decisive factor in this. As discussed in depth throughout the safety report, the maritime industry’s transition to new fuels and engine types – which is crucial to decarbonization efforts over the coming decades – will present new safety challenges to ship operators and crew members.  

Fuels like ammonia and methanol are unfamiliar to maritime workers and contain their own particular safety hazards, while the engines that they will run on will require additional skills that many of these workers don’t currently possess. It is therefore crucial that safety considerations lie at the heart of the transition to these new technologies, as well as to digital technologies that are rapidly replacing traditional operating systems. This will require new training programmes that are smart and driven by the realistic considerations of human beings who will be interacting most with new technologies. 

IMO guidelines evolving in line with new technologies

Against the backdrop of rapid change in the maritime industry, safety guidelines and regulations from the International Maritime Organization (IMO) have needed to evolve to remain in step with new fuels and technologies. However, this is no easy task. Regulations traditionally designed for ships and systems of today can become outdated and less relevant as new machinery, fuels and operating systems become more prevalent. Older regulations can even hinder the application of new technologies, slowing down further development that, in turn, can slow down decarbonization efforts. 

“Although the current international regulatory safety framework is always evolving, it is largely based on a set of standards that were written at a time when technologies were quite fixed and that assumed large levels of human intervention,” says Kathrine Ilje Nerland, Senior Principal Engineer and safety regulation expert at DNV. “However, with the industry shifting towards increased automation, alternative fuels and more advanced navigation and communication equipment, there is a need to design new regulations that are modern and more in step with these technological shifts.” 

Shift to a goal-based approach

These fundamental concerns have prompted the IMO to shift the ways in which they approach safety regulations. Most significantly, this has seen the organization moving from prescriptive regulations towards goal-based requirements. Goal-based safety requirements are fundamentally broader and more flexible than prescriptive regulations and allow the IMO to define fundamental aspects of safety criteria that need to be met to ensure safe shipping. 

“A key benefit of goal-based requirements is that IMO regulations are given the flexibility to accept new technologies and novel designs by meeting broad safety requirements instead of specific design criteria,” Nerland explains. “In practice, this means that technological innovators or ship designers adopting new fuels or new operating systems can already be aware of fundamental safety expectations when developing new technologies, thus paving the way for smoother and more aligned development.” 

The role of class

With the IMO placing a premium on high-quality but less specifically designed safety requirements as it deals with rapidly evolving technologies and digital systems, the need for classification societies will be greater than ever. Classification societies like DNV have a comprehensive overview of the latest technological changes and are already keenly aware of safety issues related to new fuels and technologies. 

"This familiarity, as well as wide experience related to new maritime technologies means that DNV is in an excellent position to add value to safety regulations by providing assurance that new systems and technologies are safe and compliant with the goal-based requirements of the IMO," Nerland says.  

Several safety initiatives launched

Although, on a broader level, the IMO is shifting towards a goal-based approach when dealing with safety regulations, efforts are still being made by the organization to tailor its existing suite of regulations. The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and associated Codes is a comprehensive document that covers all areas of maritime safety and several amendments are set to enter into force in 2024. These include new requirements for ships carrying industrial personnel, modernization of the requirements for the worldwide system for communication of emergency information (GMDSS), new requirements for safe mooring operations and updates to the requirements for ships using LNG as fuel. 

“Highlights of the work in progress towards 2026 and beyond include the development of provisions for autonomous ships and measures to improve the fire safety of ro-ro passenger ships,” Nerland comments. “A regulatory framework for ships using alternative fuels like methanol, LPG, hydrogen, low flashpoint oil fuels and ammonia, and for fuel cells being installed onboard is also being developed and will come into force at various stages over the next decade, helping to facilitate the advancement of these fuels and contribute towards the safe decarbonization of shipping.” 

Broad-based advancements in safety culture required

With the IMO making strides to adapt its safety requirements to a rapidly changing maritime world, actors across the wider industry should review how they view safety and search for different ways in which they can contribute towards an overall reduction in safety incidents. In particular, DNV’s safety report emphasizes the need for maritime companies to develop a robust safety culture that places people at its core.  

Achieving this cultural shift requires a change in attitude, both from those in positions of leadership, and workers involved in day-to-day operations, as well as cross-industry collaboration. Doing this well will enable the whole industry to learn about specific challenges related to new fuels and technologies thus paving the way for a smoother decarbonization journey in the future. 

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Kathrine Ilje Nerland

Kathrine Ilje Nerland

Principal Consultant

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