Thursday, April 28, 2016

New Study Questions Safety of New Panama Canal Locks

International Unions Warn of Potential Dangers to Merchant Shipping
Shipping News Feature
PANAMA – Just as the new, larger Panama Canal is set to open there have been queries raised as to the safety of operation of the huge new locks which control the transit of the merchant vessels passing through. The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) has raised pressing concerns after analysing the results of a study it commissioned into the new Canal expansion.

The ITF commissioned the study, which was carried out by Fundação Homem de Mar (FHM), the Brazilian Foundation charged with improving that nation’s maritime performance, in response to safety concerns raised by its Panamanian member unions. FHM was tasked with preparing a mathematical model, using a Manoeuvring Simulator Class A, to recreate the new locks, a neo-Panamax vessel and the tugboats that would assist its manoeuvres.

The study was commissioned in September last year after several delays in the completion of construction and when cracks were found in the structures, but it is the operation of the new facilities which have provided the principal cause for concern. The unions claim that it is the Panama Canal Administration (PCA’s) refusal to engage in dialogue on matters such as training, as well as the technical and construction issues that have led to delays in the operation of the new infrastructure, originally scheduled to open in 2014.

This, they claim, is now borne out by the study’s simulation exercises which used a neo-Panamax model vessel and two tugboats and which concluded that the safety of manoeuvrability is compromised due to several factors:

  • The locks’ dimensions are too small for safe operation (with both gates closed)
  • There are no refuge areas for the tugboats inside the locks, leaving no room for failure (human error, miscommunication, broken lines or engine failure)
  • The bollard pull is insufficient
  • In terms of manoeuvrability in the locks, the control of the vessel was compromised under the average environmental conditions present in that geographic area (data provided by the contracting party). The main reasons were the low power of the tugboats and the required bollard pull. With milder conditions the exercise was concluded safely
  • The study recommends that a complete risk analysis and special training should be carried out to avoid any accidents that may result in loss of life or pollution

The full study can be viewed HERE whilst a video of a simulated transit can be seen HERE.

The ITF claims it has, together with its local member unions, offered to work with the PCA to ensure that the safety concerns of those who will work on the new infrastructure are addressed and has made the study available to the Canal management. Speaking from Panama City as the results of the study were released ITF general secretary Steve Cotton said:

“I wish I could report that the study gave the new locks the all clear. Sadly, I can’t. Instead we face a situation where those working on the canal, and those passing through it, are potentially at risk. That will have to change. The study was based on the PCA's original plan to use one forward tug and one aft tug. We understand that compensatory alternatives are being examined, which we welcome.

“The issues identified in this study will not be a surprise to workers on the canal. Unfortunately their expertise and experience have up to now been snubbed. Thankfully they’re still on offer. Those who’ll be working these locks have to be brought into the process, while there’s still time to fix the defects. “We share our affiliated unions’ concerns and we can assure that The ITF and its canal affiliates want the new canal to be safe and to work. The Panama Canal is crucial for the international maritime industry. We offer our full support to make this important maritime route safe for all those who transit it or work on it, and for a positive engagement between unions and the PCA.

“We believe that this is an issue where there is common ground with shipowners, insurers and others in the maritime industry, so we will seek to engage them in the discussions and strategies for improvement in this crucial area and may also consider updating the simulation to cover new manoeuvring alternatives in co-operation with the PCA, as well as other shipping industry representatives.”