ABS President Calls For Class Overhaul

Wednesday, June 25, 2003
If class is to remain relevant, it must remake itself for the modern world, ABS President and CEO Robert D. Somerville told delegates to the World Maritime Forum in St. Petersburg today. "Self regulation will continue to provide an effective method for establishing and enforcing standards only if all elements of the industry recognize that substantive overhaul is needed," he said. Somerville highlighted the remarkable, and continuously improving safety record of the international shipping industry but conceded that, "in the eyes of government and the public, the self regulatory approach no longer meets expectations." Good as the safety record may be statistically, "it is not good enough," said Somerville. With every tanker spill, regardless of how infrequent they may be, "the effectiveness of the existing maritime safety system will be called into question," he said, "and it will be found wanting. The result will be further regulation." The ABS chief executive highlighted four principal elements that have changed the environment in which class and the shipping industry operates. The public demands have increased; the nature of ship owning has changed; the technology available to class societies is far more sophisticated; and the pressures on the shipbuilding industry are different to those of the past. "It is time for the maritime safety system to recognize these changes and adapt to them in a rational and effective manner if the classification profession is to retain any relevance in the future." Comparing the current pressures faced by all sectors of the industry with those of 30 years ago, Somerville noted that "today's VLCC will almost certainly be built in a shipyard where price and production efficiencies are the driving forces. That means keeping the design simple and putting as little material into the ship as possible." That, said Somerville, "is not a recipe for quality tonnage, built to last." Somerville believes that too many of today's shipowners see class as an intrusive watchdog. "They are under intense commercial pressure," he noted. "There is little capability or incentive to maintain the vessel, to repair coatings or to install anodes in the way that was done in the past. That owner will run that ship until his classification society determines it no longer meets rule requirements, and he will do everything possible to delay that day or defer repairs. The concept of class as a partner is dead." In calling for an industry wide effort to analyze and improve the existing system, Somerville stressed six key issues for class that should be addressed. "It must address the issue of what role and what power is to be ascribed to the classification societies, " he said. "Does the industry want class to be the policeman? If it does, give us the power of enforcement." Noting the constant criticism of the current system by which the shipowner is invoiced for class services, Somerville says the industry must address the issue of who pays the class society. "It is immaterial to us who pays, but we must charge for the services we provide," he said. "If the industry decides the current system is effective and workable, then support it and put these criticisms to rest." The ABS President welcomed the recent decision by the IACS Council to work towards the adoption of common scantlings and strength criteria. "It is no longer reasonable to place classification societies in the position where shipyards play one off against another for the sake of 250 tons of steel in a VLCC with a lightweight of some 38,000 tons," he said, urging industry support for the unified rule approach. Other issues include the exposure of class societies to unlimited liability, to criminal penalties and the release of class related information to a wider public. However Somerville also sounded a note of caution. "Much as I believe this reinvention of class is needed, the classification societies cannot and will not undertake this reform by themselves," he conceded. "It is not just that the collective courage does not exist. Any such unilateral action by class would be doomed to failure. For the radical overhaul that I am suggesting to be effective, it must be orchestrated with and accepted by the industry." "We need to get together and remake the process, and we need to do that now," he urged.
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