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Industry faces hurdles on crew changes, essential staff in pandemic

Jun 2, 2020 04:23 PM
The tugboats Capt. Brian A. McAllister, Ava McAllister, Alex McAllister and Ellen McAllister assist the hospital ship USNS Comfort to its berth at the Manhattan Cruise Terminal on the Hudson River on March 30.

Courtesy McAllister Towing/David Rider

The tugboats Capt. Brian A. McAllister, Ava McAllister, Alex McAllister and Ellen McAllister assist the hospital ship USNS Comfort to its berth at the Manhattan Cruise Terminal on the Hudson River on March 30.

With much of the United States shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, mariners and port employees keep working, but in a radically different environment. Crew changes and visits to vessels must be done with numerous safety precautions. Personal hygiene on board has become paramount. 

“We are treating personal hygiene guidelines like safety practices,” said Jim Weakley, president of the Lake Carriers’ Association. Failure to follow the new rules is handled like a violation of safety codes before the pandemic.

Guidelines posted on the Seafarers International Union website March 20 stated that crew changes would be suspended for 30 days, with relief crew decided on a case-by-case basis. Personnel designated as “essential,” such as repair teams, are allowed on board, according to union spokesman Jordan Biscardo. 

Along with U.S. Coast Guard guidelines, companies have been issuing their own specific sanitation and hygiene rules to protect crews on vessels, which sometimes differ from company to company (see sidebar). Even more challenging, federal, state and local entities are often at odds as they struggle to cope with COVID-19.

“I wish I could say that they all talk to each other and (have) one unified voice, but this is new to everybody, and they’re all trying to figure it out,” said Sean Kline, director of maritime affairs for the Chamber of Shipping of America.

Despite initial challenges, Caitlyn Stewart, director of regulatory affairs for the American Waterways Operators (AWO), said that the maritime world was working fairly well as of early April.

“I hesitate to generalize, because there are things that folks are dealing with that are very much outside of the norm,” she said. “This is not business as usual, but there needs to be business continuity.”

Of the problems facing the industry, the biggest one is ensuring that crew changes are conducted as scheduled. 

The Foss Maritime tugboats Alta June, Bo Brusco and Arthur Foss escort USNS Mercy into the Port of Los Angeles on March 27. The Military Sealift Command hospital ship, providing COVID-19 response, also was assisted by the AmNav Maritime tug Patricia Ann

Courtesy Foss Maritime

“We’ve asked the question directly to (U.S. Customs and Border Protection),” Kline said. “When there’s a shelter-in-place order, and mariners are essential, we’re still having issues with getting mariners off the ships. They have been on ships well past their due date. That leads to complacency, fatigue and potential safety issues.”

The Coast Guard issued a marine safety information bulletin on March 18 stating that port facility operators are not allowed to prevent crewmembers from leaving or boarding a vessel. It is up to the Coast Guard or Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to determine if that has occurred.

“Maritime facility operators are reminded they are not permitted to impede the embarkation/disembarkation of crewmembers as permitted under Seafarer’s Access regulations,” the bulletin said. “The authority to restrict access resides with Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the Coast Guard, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for medical matters. Facility operators should contact their local CBP, Coast Guard or the CDC, state and local health department offices regarding specific questions or concerns about their individual operations.”

Despite the U.S. Department of Homeland Security stating that mariners, port workers and equipment operators all work in critical infrastructure, some maritime workers have found it difficult to get to vessels in port. In late March, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordered that anyone coming into the state from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, California, Louisiana or Washington must quarantine for 14 days or face a $1,000 fine and/or 180-day jail term. The order also applied to anyone entering Texas from the cities of Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit or Miami.

“That was a really problematic issue, because even when they had been aware that critical-infrastructure workers were being impacted, they wanted to address it on a case-by-case basis,” Stewart said. With help from the Texas Waterway Operators Association, maritime workers were declared exempt from the blanket rule. “But there have been mistakes like that,” she said. “I don’t want to gild the lily. There have been instances where it has been a bit of a scramble.”

Another example is the San Francisco Bay Area, home to one of the first shelter-in-place orders in the U.S. to stop the spread of the coronavirus. “They had included a few categories of critical-infrastructure workers that didn’t specifically state that maritime workers were (essential),” Stewart said. “This was really one of the first ones in the country, so there was a bit of follow-up needed on our members’ part.” With assistance from the Coast Guard, the problem was resolved. 

To make sure that all maritime workers are protected, the Coast Guard on March 27 updated a previous order and designated 16 categories of personnel as essential, including pilots; stevedores and longshoremen; seafarer and labor union representatives; marine consultants and naval architects; lock and dam operators; commercial fleeting facility personnel; equipment, crane, cargo and dredging operators; and vendors and ship chandlers.

The conflict between federal, state and local governments has been a challenge, with maritime operators and crew often not sure where to look for regulatory guidance. 

“A lot of authority has been given to local jurisdictions, whether that’s an airport or whether that’s a port,” Kline said. “They can say, ‘Hey, I don’t think that’s good and we’ve got to stop him.’ They have every right, but it makes it more difficult. It puts serious risk on a shipowner who’s trying to send people through Newark, for example, and they get tied up.”

Fortunately for U.S. mariners, it has not been a major problem for them to get to port. “I have had two members contact me who have said, ‘Hey, there’s a shelter-in-place order here and we’re having difficulty. … In one case it was not just the crew, but getting their port workers to port,” Kline said.

A U.S. Coast Guard boat crew from Station Fort Lauderdale escorts the cruise ship Zaandam to Port Everglades, Fla., on April 2. The ship, with 1,200 passengers on board, spent four weeks in limbo at sea after multiple diagnoses of coronavirus among its 1,200 passengers. 

U.S. Coast Guard photo

Unfortunately, this is not true internationally, with crew on commercial vessels facing extraordinary difficulties. Crew changes are not being allowed in many ports, forcing an estimated 150,000 mariners to remain on their ships in early April. Crewmembers who have worked stretches as long as 10 months are being prevented from leaving their vessels because they have nowhere to go, according to the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITWF).

“We have problems with crew getting trapped,” said Stuart Neil, a spokesman for the International Chamber of Shipping. “When they began lockdowns in India, for example, ports closed and people found they had no food.” There have been reports of crew having a hard time getting medical attention as well.

The number of American mariners afflicted with COVID-19 has been extremely small, according to Stewart — about five to six cases as of late March, based on anecdotal information. 

“As we understand it, we’ve had both coastal and inland crewmembers who developed symptoms of COVID-19, were isolated, taken off the vessel, and sent for medical care and testing,” she said. “My understanding is that there have been folks who have tested positive once they have disembarked from the vessel.” 

The Coast Guard requires vessels with suspected cases of COVID-19 to report them immediately to the nearest captain of the port. Mariners thought to have contracted the coronavirus should be isolated in their cabin with the door closed, among other precautions.

A looming issue for the maritime industry involves major vessel repairs, inspections and dry docks during the pandemic. For example, in an April 9 marine safety information bulletin, the Coast Guard granted a 12-month extension for the installation and commission of ballast water treatment systems. Extensions also will be granted, on a case-by-case basis, for certificates of inspection, renewals, annual inspections, periodic inspections, dry-dock examinations and internal structural exams, according to a March 26 Coast Guard information bulletin.

This is helpful for vessel owners and operators, but there are long-term implications, according to Kline.

“The hard part about that is ships that have a dry-dock schedule — where they are going to get an installation or something done — and the Coast Guard says, ‘We’ll extend you for 12 months.’ Well, you can’t just go back into a shipyard (for a time slot),” he said. “These dry-dock schedules are sometimes over a year out. If you miss your slot, you’re paying penalties.” 

The Coast Guard also has extended the deadlines for mariner documentation such as Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) cards, merchant mariner credentials and medical certificates, and STCW endorsements. 

“When compliance with these regulations cannot reasonably be met as a result of COVID-19, the Coast Guard will exercise flexibility to prevent undue delays,” according to an April 3 advisory. 

As federal and state agencies have struggled to deliver a cohesive and consistent message during the pandemic, the Coast Guard has stepped up, according to Kline.

“I think the Coast Guard has done a really good job,” he said. “They’ve been reaching out. They’ve been trying to seek solutions. There’s no question, that for something that nobody could be prepared for, they’ve been really good about coming up with ideas and listening to the industry.”

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