Process Ignorance or Commercialisation, What’s the Cause Behind Maersk Honam Fire?

by Purnendu Shekhar | 17 Apr, 2018

March was a busy month at work. Financial year-ends usually are. Although I do try to keep abreast of all important news and critical events in the industry, sometimes the schedule doesn’t permit it.

The news about the fire on Maersk Honam is one such missed incident. I came to know about the case whilst going through the industry updates of the past month.

As I understand from the media reports, it took almost 5 days to bring the fire under control. The firefighting efforts are still in progress. This explosion resulted in the death of 5 crew members, destroyed cargo worth millions, and caused heavy damage to a new (2017 built) vessel. For the shippers who had cargo on board, the nightmare has just begun. It may take months for them to get their cargo back (if it has been salvaged) that too after paying a huge sum of money as the Danish Liner has declared general average.

Why do we need to talk about this incident?

Even though fire on ships is not a frequent occurrence, it is a serious one. Thus, when such incidents occur, we must not brush them away as accidents. They signal an anomaly in the system or processes that are being followed.

Instead of stopping at mere reportage, these cases should be rigorously investigated for cause. And, we must collectively – shipping lines, regulatory authorities, NVOCCs, and traders – work to find solutions to mitigate such incidents.

To spark off the discussion, I am sharing a few questions that occurred to me as I read the media reports on the Maersk Honam Fire mishap.

Considering that the vessel was new, it raises a question regarding the construction plan of the ship/quality of the construction. One is compelled to ask if the ship’s construction plan was approved by the American Bureau of Shipping? Or was safety compromised in anyway to optimize design and reduce costs?

  • How did the ship’s document of compliance allow such dangerous cargo to be loaded near the crew’s accommodation? Did the stowage plan of the vessel comply with the document of compliance? Were the rules and regulations mentioned in the SOLAS Convention followed?
  • Was the cargo correctly approved in line with the International Maritime Dangerous Goods (IMDG) Code by the shipping line that accepted it?
    Here, along with Maersk, the responsibility for the mishap  lies equally with its 2M Alliance Partner - MSC and slot sharing partner - HMM. Since, the cargo manifest is not made available to the vessel operator, it is important to know if the Line that accepted the cargo carried out due diligence?
  • Finally, did the shipper correctly declare the nature of the cargo?
    One of the major reasons for such incidents is misleading/incorrect information provided by the shipper or his staff due to unawareness of the rules or inexperience of dealing with such hazardous cargo. As an industry, we must take measures to educate shippers of the rules and regulations, processes to be followed when dealing with hazardous cargo.

In addition to finding answers to the above questions, we also need to understand where we are lacking in our efforts to ensure ship safety:

  • Are we providing the latest equipment on the ships to deal with such mishaps? 
  • Is our crew equipped with the knowledge and training to manage any operational issues or accidents or fires? Training of the staff on board must be of top priority because if even one member of the crew is slightly unsure of what to do in such a situation, we are putting the life of 25-30 other people at risk.

While investigations will reveal the cause of the blast on Maersk Honam, till the time the report is released, we must engage in healthy debate on how to curb such incidents. As an industry, we must also work on educating ourselves, our teams, and our customers to make due diligence and safety first an integral part of our work. We owe it to the 5 sailors who lost their lives in the incident.

Image Source: @IndiaCoastGuard

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