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Is a low-profit environment chasing down chemical tanker safety?

Is a low-profit environment chasing down chemical tanker safety?
A diverse range of cargoes keeps chemical tanker owners in a stable but very low-profit-margin environment, but a constant demand over ship age from charterers is forcing owners to order newbuildings that could ironically be a threat to safety.

Jan Hammer, managing director of Essberger Tankers, said at the 8th London Chemical & Tanker Conference that a misguided obsession with vessel ages among charterers, combined with high cost pressure and “a point of stagnation” for the market, resulted in owners being forced to invest in cheaper newbuildings with lower automation and poor provision for crew.

“These age restrictions are creeping further down,” said Hammer. “It started at 25 years, and then became 20. Now, 15 is the new target."

However, “This is completely unjustified, and especially frustrating because it doesn’t make sense. Age restrictions are not relevant, because accidents are caused by people.”

Low age requirement, said Hammer, necessitates the scrapping of extremely expensive, specialised and efficiently-designed equipment “which would have lasted a number of additional years,” which he called wasteful and “sub-optimal.”

“My biggest concern is for the welfare of the crew on board,” Hammer told Seatrade Maritime News. “Because of the need to lower operating costs, you have to build cheap, and you have to build with low automation.”

Compounding the increased demands on crew was the facilities onboard, where shipowners are also being forced to take shortcuts. “Why spend more to make your crew comfortable? Nobody is going to fit out the crew accommodation because nobody can find the money,” said Hammer. “Crew is a fixed rather than variable cost."

But this combination of a reduction in automation, increased safety responsibility and poor crew facilities is coming down on a low-cost labour force, he argued. “We are being forced to base our operation on low cost labour since there is no chance to survive otherwise.”

“I favour a lot of the old age of ships because they’re built to a very high standard,” agreed Okke Huising, Regional Marine Managerof Shell. “Lifespan should not be restricted, it’s a waste of technical competence.” An audience member, meanwhile, cited Louis Dreyfus as an example, calling its five-year rule on vessels carrying palm oil as “ridiculous.”

“Is this new generation of cheaply built and outfitted ships is as good as more expensive?” asked Hammer. “I don’t have the answer, but I hope it is.”