Posted by: towmasters | April 17, 2009

Size Does Matter

Well, it sure does if excessive “size” renders mariners incapable of performing the various emergency response duties required of them or makes it impossible for their shipmates to help them when they’re down and out. Deep Water Writing has this fine take on overfed seafarers, the dangers they pose to themselves and others, and the cultural inertia (both at the individual and corporate levels) that makes getting people to change their self-destructive habits a herculean task. The problem is just, well, too big to solve quickly.

Change is clearly needed, and the Coast Guard is in the right to act on this. S.F. Pilot John Cota (he of the recent M/V Cosco Busan incident) was practically a walking pharmacopia. Assistant Captain Richard Smith on the Staten Island Ferry boat Andrew J. Barberi, which crashed into a pier at full speed (killing and maiming scores of people), was similarly medicated. High profile “accidents” like these galvanize public outrage and force politicians and government agencies to act, often swiftly, with the primary objective of getting the heat turned down as quickly as possible. Good policy is not an assured result and no one should really be surprised by any of this.

Nevertheless, there are still some aspects of the National Maritime Center’s recent policy changes concerning medical standards for mariners (contained in NVIC #04-08) that I disagree very strongly with, particularly the practice of sight-unseen determinations of fitness for duty by a government doctor located in the rolling hills of West Virginia. How anyone, even a government bureaucrat, could consider it either remotely fair to mariners or in the public’s best interest to evaluate the physical condition of our nation’s merchant mariners without ever actually seeing them in the flesh, let alone examining them, is beyond comprehension. It is deeply troubling that our fate is now to be decided in such a fashion, and with no oversight by a neutral party.

If the ultimate goal is to improve public, infrastructure and environmental safety by improving the overall health of our mariners then, in general, I’m all for it. There is no doubt that America, as a whole, has gotten quite fat and unhealthy because of our sedentary ways and lousy eating habits, and mariners are merely a reflection of the population at large. It is now considered normal, even expected, that almost all of us will develop heart disease eventually, and this is almost entirely a function of dietary and lifestyle choices that we have a considerable amount of control over. Most everyone, it seems, would rather just kick back in the galley, stare at the tube, and eat Twinkies by the box-full. This situation needs to change and the public has a right to expect that people in safety-sensitive positions like ours must meet a reasonable standard of health so that we don’t pose an undue risk to others. But that would be a long-term project that could easily take at least a generation to fully achieve. We didn’t get this way overnight and it’ll take more than just a new NVIC and some good intentions to fix it.

But it certainly isn’t just us. Obesity, heart disease, and diabetes caused by a self-imposed bad diet are only part of the picture. Many of us struggle to do what we know is right, but the deck is stacked against us. Inadequate manning standards and watch rotations, marginal and cramped living conditions, excessive noise and vibration levels, no protection from second-hand smoke exposure, overly-restrictive security plans and the associated inability to get off the boat and stretch one’s legs; the list goes on and on. They all play a part in this problem. It’s been well established that the typical 2-watch system, no matter how you slice it, does not allow for adequate rest. Not only is this an immediate and continuous safety hazard while we all operate in a semi to fully-fatigued condition, it also has long-term health consequences. Inadequate, low-quality rest leads to poor health as surely as night follows day, and this has been known for a long time. For the Coast Guard to tighten the screws on us with the strict enforcement of medical fitness standards without simultaneously taking action on any of the other well-known causal factors is just a cop-out at the expense of mariners.

Will any of this be addressed in the upcoming towing vessel inspection rulemaking process? Possibly, but don’t expect too much out of it. Oilfield Service Vessels (OSV’s) have been inspected for many years and yet they still suffer from most of these same problems. The Coast Guard will have to take a proactive yet sophisticated and nuanced approach, and a patient one as well, if it expects to make any real progress on this.

Pushing too hard, and putting too many mariners out of work, will only lead to three things: more bad blood, an even worse shortage of qualified and experienced mariners, and probably a class-action lawsuit if the numbers get big enough. Another “accident” with medical issues as a primary or contributing cause and Congress will probably want heads on a platter. It’s a tough position for the Coast Guard to be in, a real tightrope walk over a gator pit, but there it is.

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  1. […] the Master of Towing Vessels Assoc. Forum has “Size Does Matter“. That would be the size of the […]


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