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IMO boss Arsenio Dominguez stresses safety first for seafarers

20 June 2024

Ahead of the Day of the Seafarer 2024, Helen Kelly sat down with International Maritime Organization secretary general Arsenio Dominguez to discuss the importance of a just and equitable transition to a decarbonised maritime industry – with crew training and safety at the top of the agenda

Helen Kelly (HK): Last year the International Maritime Organization (IMO) agreed a revised greenhouse gas (GHG) strategy which is widely considered to be very ambitious in its targets. Given that the shipping industry is sometimes known to be slow to adopt, are you confident to hit these targets?

Arsenio Dominguez (AD): The quick answer is yes. I'm very confident. And the reason why I say that is because all the years that we have been working to get to where we are right now: there's a lot of investigations, a lot of analysis, a lot of information that has been put forward to the organisation through several meetings, in order to achieve the outcome, which is the 2023 IMO GHG strategy.

There are challenges, we know that this is a transition, but we must contribute. This is not just IMO and shipping. This is a global solution.

HK: What challenges do you foresee in meeting those ambitious goals?

AD: The main challenge is that we don't control all the factors that will play a part in decarbonisation. I'll give you one example, which is the new alternative fuels that will be required. We don't control the energy sector, we don't regulate the energy sector, we need their support and their assistance.

This is where the member states play a particular role in their national strategies to make sure that those fuels that we will be transporting for other sectors – that also need to decarbonise – are scaled up and at a price that is competitive to conventional fuels.

Another challenge is that new technologies will be used alongside the new fuels, and we need to address the safety aspect, because that's paramount for IMO.

We were born as a safety organisation, and we need to remember that. So, the safety of the seafarers is the primary concern. In parallel, as we've been developing the environmental regulations, we are also carrying out the necessary analysis, research and development programmes, training in general, to get to the level where it is safe to move ahead.

HK: One of the objectives of the GHG strategy is for the IMO to reduce emissions whilst promoting a just and equitable transition. What does that mean to you?

AD: It means that we're all part of the solution. And this is why, before we finalise the measures, we are carrying out an impact assessment on the fleet, on trade, on countries. Because we need to make sure that, as the statement of the UN, that we are leaving no one behind.

For me it is the actions that we take to make sure that this is just an equitable transition. That countries are not going to be penalised, trade is not going to be penalised, and it's not going to make things more difficult or expensive.

We must all contribute to decarbonisation and to support what is the global approach of sustainability of the planet and conservation of the planet.

If we want to attract and retain seafarers, we need to treat them with respect, we need to provide them better conditions.

HK: How does that trickle down to the maritime workforce? What needs to happen to ensure, for them, it is a just and equitable transition?

AD: Within the strategy, there's a particular reference to seafarers and the support that they require. For me, it's how we're going to support that transition for them when it comes to the new skills, the new training requirements that they require, and how we can support that through our technical measures and our economic measures.

We continue to carry out research and developments in relation to the training requirements for the seafarers to make sure that the technologies and the alternative fuels are safe. We're not starting from zero, we have transported some of these raw materials and fuels as cargo. It is now about the handling, and of course the port operations in relation to the ship as well the ship to port interface.

HK: The Maritime Just Transition Task Force report found that 800,000 seafarers will need to be retrained on new fuels by the mid-2030s to hit those net zero by 2050 scenario. It's a huge undertaking within a relatively short period of time, so how can administrations and employers ensure that target is hit?

AD: There are administrations that are already carrying out evaluations, assessment and training in this respect. There are manufacturers that are already carrying out their own development of the recorded training for the operation of new engines.

Within the IMO, we're also going into the requirements through the STCW convention review.

So even though it's a big number of seafarers that need to be retrained, we have the time, we have the opportunities, and of course with technological development that would also assist us in providing the training and the qualifications for the seafarers of the future.

What is important to acknowledge is that we are working already on it. We know the numbers, we know the challenges, it's time for us to start looking into the actions.

HK: Whilst our members are supportive of decarbonisation efforts, they do have very real concerns about the potential safety implications involved, particularly in a rapid transition to new fuels. How can we ensure that the urgency of the decarbonisation effort does not lead to a reduction in safety standards?

AD: The best answer is that the rules organisations are not there to reduce the standards of their effectiveness, only to improve it. That's based on experience, as well as the all the data that we gathered from the information.

We started by talking about how IMO was born on safety. Yes, we are hugely involved in protecting the environment, but safety is paramount. I need to keep repeating that. We will revise all the safety aspects, and we will provide the necessary requirements to handle it.

This is a transition. This is not happening overnight. The goal for 2030 is an uptake of 5%, aiming at 10% of alternative fuels. So, we have the time to roll out the process in relation to how we're going to provide that assistance for training, but we're not going to just rush into something that is not safe.

HK: Whilst our members support automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI) onboard when it reduces administrative tasks, they are worried about it displacing their jobs and adding to fatigue because there's less people on board. What is your response?

AD: As we move forward into AI and more technological developments, the focus should be to assist the seafarers, not to replace the seafarers.

There will be certain trades, short sea shipping for example, where we will see more automation. This will require jobs to be moved ashore, but otherwise seafarers will be needed onboard the vessels to guarantee and safeguard the safety of operations and functioning of the ship.

When it comes to safe manning, of course technology can assist in that respect, but we also must look into it. This is why we started last year our review of the efficacy of the International Safe Management (ISM) code.

We need to address the fact of human error, but also that fatigue continues to play a part.

HK: You have asked seafarers to share their tips on ensuring safety at sea for the 2024 Day of the Seafarer. Do you think that the views of seafarers have been given the prominence that they deserve at the IMO?

AD: The answer is yes. But we can always do better, and we can always improve.

We work very closely with the International Labour Organisation (ILO). There's a tripartite meeting between IMO and ILO. We also bring the seafarers' as well as the shipowners' representatives into the meetings, which works very well when we work all together.

Every time that I meet with seafarers. I make a point of listening to them. I want them to tell me exactly their experience, how they feel, because that helps me in passing on the message to the membership to the stakeholders.

I encourage seafarers to also be vocal. I want to put IMO 'out there' and want us to be recognised.

I also want seafarers, once they start transitioning to other areas, to consider a career at IMO. Consider representing their member states at IMO.

HK: What steps is the IMO taking to ensure that the rights of seafarers are protected, particularly around fair treatment and wages and working conditions?

AD: I think we can do better. I'm going to be very honest on that. We need to continue to pay attention to what are the needs of the seafarers.

There are several regulations that we are developing right now to protect seafarers onboard, mostly in relation to sexual harassment, sexual assault, or harassment and assault, and protecting seafarers in cases of criminalisation.

If we want to attract and retain seafarers, we need to treat them with respect, we need to provide them better conditions.

For example, when we are designing a ship, we can sacrifice a little bit of cargo space to make more accommodations space for the seafarers; providing the communications and tools that we have on land.

There's a lot that we can do, that the industry can do, that doesn't cost that much, but will demonstrate that we know how important seafarers are. And that we are listening.


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