Content of the March 2016 Newsletter

Unmanned Ships - Another Step. Comment about the latest publicity from Rolls Royce about "Autonomous Ships". Times are Hard - The lack of commitment to the UK offshore Marine Safety Forum (MSF) now that times are hard for the members. More US Navy Stuff - the latest fascinating product from the American Defence Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), an autonomous submarine chaser. Loss of Life on the Glomar Arctic IV - a cautionary tale about the failure of safety processes resulting in the deaths of two workers. A Catalogue - one of the problems relating to the self publication of books, and an appeal to buy my latest.


There has recently been further publicity from Rolls Royce about what they are calling “autonomous ships”, which would have no-one on board but which would be controlled from a remote location. Hence the photograph which looks like a still from Minority Report. The controller speaks to the ships using an acronym with four figures. (RR6425 maybe), and in rather an innovative way I thought, launches drones to have a look at what’s going on around it. 


We ordinary people who have sailed on vessels with quite large crews, might be thinking, well fair enough no-one on board but a set of watch keepers doing four on eight off to make sure everything is fine, and any necessary avoiding action is taken. But then the promoters of this system must have given themselves a small fleet and then multiplied the numbers by the watch keepers and come up with thirty or forty. Too many they must have thought, so they suggest that a whole fleet would be operated by seven or eight people. Would there be three watches? Not made quite clear. 

But as time is passing, and more information – or is it just publicity – makes its way into the public domain, it all seems to be looking a bit more viable. And having sailed on vessels which made their way across the Pacific without seeing anything, with masters who were completely bonkers, I can see that there are advantages in this sort of vessel. But honestly, I think we might still give them names and maybe avoid using voice activation, which has become a joke in other environments. We could have a competition for appropriate names for unmanned vessels, maybe starting with “Marvin” the paranoid android from The Hitchhiker’s Guide. Have a look at the video on the Rolls Royce site.


One of the sites I visit on a monthly basis to see what is going on is the Aberdeen Marine Safety Forum. And at this moment we have to review some words expressed by those in the oil industry when the oil price was such that whatever they did out there they were still going to make money. Now, when times are harder the words which are “we’re never going to compromise on safety” and such ring a bit hollow. What’s the first thing to be let go? It is the opportunity to exchange views and to receive wisdom about safety offshore. And here we should remember that work out at sea has not completely ceased. There is still drilling and production going on but maybe not so much exploration. But even so, the unfortunate MSF is have to admit that they are falling a bit behind with their website development and else, because people are not paying their subscriptions, and they are not covering the travel expenses to come to the meetings. Perhaps, just for a moment we should remember how things were after Piper Alpha. Then all the managing directors out there decided that the Safety Manager should be in the office next to them, and so it was for a while. But then as buildings were remodelled the safety departments gradually retreated to the back where they had been before, typing their dusty documents and filing their safety meeting reports, and ticking the boxes. 


A View of Semi-Submersible Cross Bracings

On 4th July 1998 two workers who were carrying cutting and welding in an after bracing of the semi-submersible Glomar Arctic IV died in an explosion and fire in the space.

The accident was the subject of a public enquiry which as usual pickedthe bones out of the misfortune, and in the space we have here I will attempt to extract the information relevant to the requirement that people know what they are doing. I know I keep on about it, and in these times of difficulty the chances are that many of those who actually know what they are about have either been sacked or have taken early retirement, leaving spaces in the management systems for people to be promoted to when things get better.

The Glomar Arctic IV was an Enhanced Pacesetter, and like many semi-submersible drilling rigs the vertical columns were connected by horizontal braces – tubes, to keep the whole structure together. The bracingswere accessed through manholes at the bottom of the columns.

The rig was owned by Global Marine, and had been purchased in March 1998 from Stena Offshore. During the purchase process cracks had been found in some of the bracings and as a result the rig had been taken into Dundee for repairs, for which Macregor Energy Services had been contracted to do the work. This involved inserting new strengthening sections inside the bracings, and on the night of the accident a welder and a plater were carrying out this work.

To do this they had available oxygen, acetylene and propane supplied using hoses from gas bottles on deck at a level above the entry into the column. Confined Space Regulations required that these supplies be shut off during all but short intervals during which work was not being carried out, and the enquiry made much of the possible failings in this area. It determined that a leak in a propane hose had resulted in some of this heavier than air gas collecting in the bracing, and that when the welder had attempted to re-light the torch the whole lot had gone up, probably killing him immediately, and the plater who was with him within a few moments. Subsequently the Dundee fire service had were faced with the almost impossible task of entering the space wearing breathing apparatus, made more difficult by their lack of familiarity with the structure. They had asked for permission some days before to carry out an exercise on board – specifically to improre their knowledge, but this had been refused by the Rig Manager. 

As a result of the change of ownership two Globan Marine OIMs were appointed to the rig, and the OIM in charge at the time of the accident was a master mariner who had a couple of years varied experience on Global Marine rigs. Also as as result of the change of ownership the Global Marine systems were to be applied for the first time during the rig’s stay in Dundee.

It was intended that the Global Marine Permit To Work (PTW) system be used during the rig stay, and the safety officer for MESL (MacGregor Energy Services Ltd) prepared a risk assessment, more formally a “Risk Assessment Hazard Checklist”. It was found that she had failed to check off a number of hazardous items which were actually to be present which included “confined space entry” described on the form as “low”, even though she had not seen the worksite. This risk assesment was determined by the enquiry to be insufficient.

The safety officer was a 26 year old female who had, it seems, been an adminstrative assistant in the safety department. She had obtained a diploma in safety management over five weeks on a day release course. The enquiry stated that she had received no special training from MESL; not even in their own policies and procedures. The enquiry detemined that there was good guidnace in the MESL safety manual, but even though she was supposed to update it, she had seemed to have little understanding of its contents. Nor did she appreciate the importance of the Global Marine PTW system. In fact the critisism of her competence goes on for pages in the report and she may still be suffering from the after effects today. It was after all, a horrific acccident, and it was said that a proper risk assessment and the effective use of the permit system would have prevented it. Basically the contractor’s safety manual told her what she should have done, but she was unfamiliar with it. And sad to say she was not alone in MESL in having little idea about what was going on.

Going on to the permit system the critisism of it is endless, one of the main points being that the workforce seemed to have no knowledge of its existence. It had been decided between the two companies that the Global Marine PTW system would be the controlling document for the work, but no-one in MESL was familiar with the process, nor was the OIM familiar with it, even though it was, according to the investigators, cogently presented in the Global Marine safety manual. The Sherriff had observed that everything that had been wrong with the Occidental PTW system at Piper Alpha could be applied to the way in which the system was applied while the Glomar Arctic IV was alongside in Dundee. Indeed it was his view that the operation of the system was worse than that which had existed on Piper Alpha. The “Issuing Authority” the OIM had had no training in the system and had no knowledge of it, and the General Foremen for MESL who were the “Performing Authorities” were untrained in its use, and no-one had told them anything about it.

For those managing companies in UK, they should be aware that formal investigations can even express opinions about you. In the case of the accident on the Glomar Arctic IV the Sherriff expressed an opinion about the Rig Manager who was considered to be “an impressive witness”, and the Technical Director of MESL of whom he said “I regret I was not impressed with him as a witness”. The Global Marine Safety and Environmental Superintendent was seen as being “rather grandly titled”, but he had no job description and did not see himself as being required to be involved in “health and safety matters.” Nor had he received any training for his function as a safety manager.

Global Marine also had a Health Safety and Environmental Manager (as opposed to Superintendent) who had been the Technical Manager at the time of the accident. He said in evidence that he had asked the Safety and Environmental Superintendent “to do the more detailed reviews of MESL's health and safety arrangements. We looked at what systems they had in place, what arrangements they had in place, the general working practices. .. He believed that MESL did not have a PTW system of their own so he had been advised that we should use Global Marine’s. Apart from that, he did not raise any concerns that were significant to the project.” The Sherriff went on to say that this quotation is a series of barefaced lies by a man who recognised his own failures but preferred to re-allocate them to others.

The Sherriff also said of these various managers that some of them had accepted their level of responsbility for the accident and had attempted to improve their knowledge , and in some cases pursuaded their employers to improve their processes, but other had remained in a state fo denial, and had not done anything about anything, and probably others had left the business altogether. But the message is clear, make sure you and the people working for you know what they are about. And if they don’t - train them!


Another report unearthed by the journalists at gCaptain about a new launch of a warship in America. And mind boggling stuff it is.

During the endless discussions about the Trident submarines in the UK someone has said that they will not be much use in thirty years due to the development of autonomous drones which will be capable of tracking and destroying the very expensive submarines out there, and relatively little cost.

You might have thought this was pretty unlikely but then we got something from the “Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency” and on their website they write that they have a programme with three goals and we’ll just look at the first one which is to:

 Explore the performance potential of a surface platform conceived from concept to field demonstration under the premise that a human is never intended to step aboard at any point in its operating cycle. As a result, a new design paradigm emerges with reduced constraints on conventional naval architecture elements such as layout, accessibility, crew support systems, and reserve buoyancy. The objective is to generate a vessel design that exceeds state-of-the art platform performance to provide propulsive overmatch against diesel electric submarines at a fraction of their size and cost.  

So if we pick the bones out of this they are saying that they are developing a surface ship which, with no-one on board, will relentlessly chase modern quiet diesel submarines in a “Terminator” like manner. Science fiction? No, they’ve launched the prototype.



I draw your attention once more to “A Catalogue of Disasters”. Where it has received publicity people have been good enough to purchase it, but I have found that the changes in the manner in which marine information is disseminated has altered the means that might be available to publicise the book. I am going to be a bit more ingenious I think, but those who have reviewed it have liked it. And it did take quite  bit of work. You could hardly call it research, because I mostly used existing accident reports, extracting what I saw as being the essential information from them, and some extended to more than 300 pages.

It then presented all the 29 accidents in a similar way so as not to confuse readers and in all cases gave an opinion on the causes of the accident and I some cases the investigation.  

The book extends to a bit more than 380 pages of A4, with about 70 pictures of various sorts and some nuggets in the margins. It costs £65 plus £5 P&P to anywhere in the world. BUY IT!

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