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Suffocating under paper

Suffocating under paper
“If your sins are many”, began the unwritten rule of seafarers who worked for a famous shipping company “make sure your paperwork is perfect”. That company is long gone, a victim of markets and the inadequacies of its management (rather than its paperwork or the sins of its seafarers), but bureaucracy grows like an amoeba and threatens us all, afloat or ashore.

“In practically every port I enter, the inspectors arrive”, complains a shipmaster to the International Maritime Organisation – “but they never look at my well-run ship, but spend all their time checking the paperwork!”

People have been complaining about the administrative burden for many years, but the complaints seem to have reached a crescendo in the aftermath of last year’s IMO inquiry into its extent in a maritime world of regulation. Perhaps the “regulator of regulators” shouldn’t have asked such an obvious question, but industry stakeholders, many of them at sea, responded in a robust fashion - by the electronic sack load.

They complained about the fact that at least one-third of all the regulations that descended upon them really did amount to a pointless burden. They resented, in an age where electronics were readily available, there was still such an emphasis on paper and an earlier era, when ships’ officers wore their fingers to the bone trying to write through six sheets of carbon paper.

There remains a disturbing amount of “bureaucratic sovereignty”, when every port where the ship calls expects several copies of each document, but each completed in their own unique style. Instead of a few fast keystrokes, the master (it is invariably the master in these lean-manned days) must spend hours producing exactly what the inspectors will be requiring, so that they can happily tick their boxes.

To the person who has to churn out this bumf, in every port on a multinational rotation, it is soulless, pointless and most importantly, takes him away from the most important role of keeping the ship running safely and efficiently, mentoring and training his staff.

Hours every day will be spent in bureaucratic tasks, whether it is producing paper for the charterer, the owner, the several inspectors who will be clumping up the gangway in the next port or all the other agencies who will be assuring themselves of the ship’s compliance with all the regulations. Sure, a well-run organisation will do what it can to provide the ship with workable electronic systems that will help to minimise the burden as compared to those which put aboard shelves groaning under the weight of manuals, but even electronic systems need the hours put in to maintain them.

So when the fog clamps down, or the watch keeper rings down to tell the master the traffic is heavy and he would like some help up top, the master must put aside his paperwork and consider his real priorities. But he will know that what he considers his principal function may not be shared by the charterers, who will be enraged by the late return of the daily report, or the fact that the ship arrives at the berth with some vital uncompleted paperwork, making its recipients mad as snakes.

The IMO survey was a useful exercise, but of course the organisation’s regulatory production line accounts for just part of the bureaucracy inflicted on ships. It would be sensible if those who operate ships could look closely at its recommendations, for more standardisation, greater use of electronic business systems and the possibility of moving a great deal of this paperwork “insulation” ashore.

Seafarers suggested the appointment of “administrative officers” to let the senior officers get on with their proper jobs, but that probably won’t happen, when a capesize is earning $3,000 per day and the world is awash with container tonnage. As you were, then.