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IMO's O'Neil Addresses Seamen's Church Safety Symposium

O'Neil Cites Aging Fleet, Projected Seafarer Shortage As Challenges To Safe Ships Calling for "some teeth of our own," the Hon. William A. O'Neil, secretary general of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), suggested it may be time that this United Nations organization be endowed with power to ensure the 147 member nations comply with the regulations it sets forth. Mr. O'Neil and a panel of distinguished speakers addressed a crowd of nearly 200 at the recent safety symposium sponsored by the Seamen's Church Institute of New York & New Jersey entitled "Improving Safety-At-Sea: Focusing on People." "We are told by the world bank, for example, that the world fleet is now so old that the shipping industry needs to spend $400 billion between now and the year 2000 to replace and restore it," said Mr. O'Neil.

"We are told by industry experts that by the same date, there will be a world shortage of something like 750,000 seafarers. In reflecting on these forecasts, one might be tempted to conclude that shipping will soon face a crisis (with consequences for safety and environmental protection).. .but there is still time to act." IMO is the U.N. forum where the representatives of 147 member governments meet to develop and adopt measures to improve maritime safety and prevent pollution. To date, there are around 40 different IMO treaties and literally hundreds of codes and recommendations.

While there are many issues and sub-issues concerning the safety and condition of the world's ships and the seafarers who crew them—including new technology and its roles in reducing crew sizes, and the individual government's and company's role in ensuring safe ships, to name a few—the bottom-line concern is the establishment and enforcement of a universal standard.

The general conclusion from the two and a half hour conference: everyone's goal is utmost safety, but paths diverge on how this goal will be accomplished.

Mr. O'Neil said that the revision of the 1978 International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers— the IMO's main instrument for ensuring a competent crew—is in conference now and it is hoped that a new convention will be adopted next year, and will enter into force two years after that. But by his own estimation, reaching new safety standards is just part of the battle.

"How can we be sure that training is carried out in accordance with the high standards adopted and that certificates can always be relied on?" asked Mr. O'Neil. "Some countries, often those with worse than average safety records, have never sought training assistance from IMO or anyone else." He did hasten to mention, though, that it is wrong to condemn maritime training as a whole, and that there are many excellent institutions which have succeeded in their teaching of IMO standards.

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