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Smart Ships embrace change - secure employment


Allan Graveson, Senior National Secretary, Nautilus International argues that technological change is coming and the maritime industry and trade unionists needs to embrace that change to secure employment, article from The Naval Architect, September 2015


It is not that this generation, or any generation, forgets the challenges the last generation faced - that is either a fond memory or a nightmare best forgotten - it is the experience of the generation before the last generation that is forgotten. Whilst the repetition of events such as wars, financial crashes and the mass movement of peoples are not predictable in themselves, once occurred the outcome is all-too familiar.

Technological change can take place at such a slow rate that it may not be readily apparent. Alternatively, it can be so fast that identification and appreciation of its future implications is difficult. New technology brings both threats and opportunities. Unions that recognise this and prepare accordingly are better able not only to survive, but to serve their membership better.

There is a perception that unions resist technological change. In some cases this is so, but equally there is evidence amongst those representing professionals that technological change is not only accepted, but is advocated. Resistance usually arises when change is sudden and with potential immediate loss - notably of employment.

As in other industries, notable events or ‘milestones’ in shipping are recorded by historians and where analysis has taken place, there is little evidence to suggest that lessons from an earlier time are acknowledged and applied today. The political, economic, fiscal, and legal environment may be considerably different ­ and so is the technology - but the common factor is change. The evidence of history shows that resistance to new technology, once it is proven and established, is futile.

Human error is frequently cited as a cause of marine incidents - in fact, the most common cause of certain types of accidents. Notwithstanding the imperatives of the parties to obtain a favourable financial outcome by focusing on proximate cause, humans do make mistakes. This is particularly evident where working a 91 to 98 hour week, with incidents concentrated in the ‘watch of death’ ­ the night hours of 00.00 to 06.00 when the human body resists thousands of years of development and suffers ‘sleepiness’. 

By taking humans out of the workplace it would not be unreasonable to conclude that incidents attributed to ‘human error’ would reduce. The issue of remote working and unmanned ships certainly has its possibilities, if only to remove the risk of drowning and exposure to long-term health effects of excessive working hours and dangerous cargoes. This is the extreme of such possibilities. Similarly, a convoy of ships with a mother vessel and unmanned vessels like a tug with barges is a possible option. While this and other ideas are good in theory, they will require the ‘permission of the sea’. 

More realistically, a monitoring and on-board maintenance crew - with a work pattern, dare one suggest, not dissimilar to aviation ­ could pick up a vessel and take it from A to B, with specialist pilotage available and mooring teams at the ready. It would reconcile the 91/98 hour week to the dustbin. This would receive little resistance from a generation tied to shore by, albeit limited, communication. De-skilling? It is doubtful, these individuals will have to be very highly skilled - and there is also the potential increase in shore-based maintenance, as in aviation.  Initially, such vessels may be smaller, but more numerous so creating employment.

Realistically, the next generation and certainly the one after will need skills to meet the requirements of new technology, some of which is currently on the lab table. However, current skills will need to be imparted to those that continue to work with current technology. The saving grace is that the shipping industry moves slowly and resists change - usually on immediate cost grounds, thus affording time to think and adapt to survive.

In the 19th century technological change was coupled with expansion in world trade on a massive scale, while the 20th century was more incremental. There are great hopes and expectations for what technology can bring to a workforce in the 21st century, especially a workforce that works continually more hours than any other on earth.  Looking to the past and making a best guess it will be incremental, not devoid of humans, and will co-exist with existing technology for at least two generations.

Shipping is a contradiction, in that risk exists in every sea voyage, yet when it comes to the adoption of new technology it has shown not only a lack of willingness to accept, but often outright hostility to change. Decades pass before universal adoption of new technology - even when the economic benefits are apparent, let alone improvements in safety. An industry largely concerned with profit today waits for the eleventh hour to approach before making changes to construction and/or to fit mandatory equipment for safety of the vessel, crew and
the environment.

The industrial revolution saw the growth of unions and associations as a consequence of de-skilling of ‘trades’ and exploitation of the work force. The nature of those organisations and their readiness to resist or embrace change was dependent upon potential threat or opportunity. For Nautilus International - with roots dating back to the formation of the Mercantile Marine Service Association (MMSA) in 1857 - it was to exert influence over the professional qualification and protect members in what was a rapidly changing and hostile world. 

Looking back to the period of European expansionism, shipping made it possible and technology made shipping possible. The 19th century was a period of considerable technological advance. Engineers and naval architects took civilisation into a new age of trade and commerce. 

In navigation a breakthrough came with a functional solution to the ‘Longitude’ question by John Harrison in 1761/64, with trials of Chronometer H4. The high cost delayed routine carriage by the Royal Navy until 1825. Such was the cost and distrust of reliance on the Chronometer by commercial shipping, the use of the Lunar Distance Method remained an option until 1907 when the production of tables ceased.

In engineering, steam ships were developed in the early 1800s and the first voyage of an iron ship in 1822 (Aaron Manby).  But it was not until the first iron hull screw-driven ship (SS Great Britain) in 1847, that steam ships became commercially viable. Unreliability and “free wind” meant masts remained a feature until the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Clipper ships co-existed with steam ships, albeit on different routes from the 1850s to approximately 1900.

The 20th century witnessed a change from coal to oil, the development of engine control systems and navigation equipment including the gyro compass, radar/ARPA and terrestrial navigation systems. These developments, while hastened by two world wars, took decades to be universally adopted in commercial shipping - again on cost grounds.

In communications a breakthrough came in the early 1900s with wireless telegraphy, but it was not until the 1980s with satellite communications that navigation changed after 200 years. This fundamental change was not resisted, despite the obvious de-skilling. The worry was taken out of navigation ­ self-interest, one’s life! 

Since 1959 IMO has set regulation for shipping via conventions, codes and other instruments - and, increasingly, in recent years by the use of ‘non-mandatory guidance’. Invariably, there is a last-minute rush to ‘lay a keel’ or purchase equipment by implementation date; with ‘extensions granted by a circular issued by the Maritime Safety Committee of the IMO. This is as if it is ‘a burden’ - simply another financial cost that has to be grudgingly accepted.  There is no clamour by the industry to make new equipment mandatory, much to the annoyance of those representing equipment manufacturers; the preference is to exercise commercial freedom. This extends to life-saving and fire-fighting equipment.

However, the nature of shipping, and the increasing potential to cause significant loss of life, catastrophic economic loss and environmental damage, has resulted in inevitable political pressures for the mandatory carriage of new technology, including radar, ARPA, GMDSS, VDR and AIS and a complex set of requirements for power and control systems. Whilst the industry resists mandatory carriage of new navigation technology, seafarers’ representatives press for carriage - after all, they have a more direct interest: their lives!

Similarly, with the move to cleaner, but more expensive fuels - away from HFO that is relatively cheap to the operator - but costly to society given the adverse effects SOx NOx and particulate matter have on health - resistance has come not from this union [Nautilus], but from industry. Not all unions and individuals shared the view that a change to cleaner fuels was necessary. We repeatedly heard the argument that shipping is the cleanest form of transport ­ correct in CO2 terms, but not the issue ­ which, again, is about life.

The only notable resistance to new technology from a UK maritime union came from the Radio and Electronic Officers Union (REOU) with the development of GMDSS and changing communication systems in the 1970s and 80s. As radio officers were increasingly consigned to the dustbin of history, the REOU amalgamated with the MMSA and the MNAOA in 1985 to become the National Union of Marine Aviation and Shipping Transport Officers (NUMAST), now Nautilus International.

Ironically, in response to changes, the REOU had twice renamed itself - firstly, in 1938 from the Association of Wireless & Cable Telegraphists, established in 1912, to the Radio Officers Union and in 1967 to the REOU. A well fought rear-guard action and the persistence of electronic officers in NUMAST, now Nautilus, kept the case for an electronic specialist very much alive. This was realised in 2010 in Manila, with the certification requirements for an Electronic Technical Officer (ETO) included in the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping Convention 1978 as amended.

The path to Manila was a long journey, the detail of which is still to be properly told. What was significant was the certification requirement without a carriage requirement; this satisfied the disparate parties, with union agreement. Absence of certification for a Senior ETO was recognised in the discussions, but was a step too far and difficult for former Chief Engineers present to accept ­ this is for another day. The workforce was proved to be correct, but it took almost two generations.  

The development and eventual obsolescence of long-rage radio equipment initially de-skilled the workforce, with tasks redistributed amongst deck and engine officers. The technological advances that made radio officers obsolete developed to such an extent that they are now an essential part of modern ship operation; new skills for new technology. This is the start, not the end, of this journey.

ECDIS and ENS illustrate the resistance to change by individuals not unions. The cry goes up: “What if the system breaks down” - so what! “You have another back-up”. The same argument was made for the retention of masts on ships in the 19th century, where the potential consequence of an engine failure was greater. 

As with the industrial revolution, there is an opportunity to create and develop new specialist skills. Integrating the human into communications systems ­‘augmented reality’ - has the potential to up-skill to a degree not yet realised. This has been illustrated recently by Wärtsilä, where engineers can interact with remote service centres ashore.

Similarly, for bridge personnel to enhance interaction between ships and ships and shore with the possibility of removing the vexed question, “What are they doing?” But, please, let’s get bridge design sorted ­ talked about for decades, yet a pair of trainers remains the most suitable footwear.  This could be seen as another step in de-skilling, but the complexity of such technology makes this a remote possibility.

Currently communications to ships remains limited, and remains the greatest barrier to future progress. Simply, the hardware over the oceans is not there ­ it is a capacity issue. Improved communication for commercial purposes affords the opportunity for improved safety and social communication. People joining the industry expect to have the same access to social media and communicate with friends and family as they do ashore. The removal of isolation brought about by reduced crew numbers - and sure to reduce further as technology follows a projected path - will surely be an inducement to accept new technology.

Unions have the ability to bring both a brain and heart to the process of change - to ensure that those working in the industry now and in future have healthy and secure employment. For a union born out of technological change and mindful of the lessons of history, there is no doubt of the continuing need to embrace change ­ and, in doing so, to set the education and training agenda for the future generations of marine professionals.

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