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Safe manning documents

Do safe manning documents account for onboard realities to accurately reflect the minimum number of seafarers required on a ship? Often, many complain that specified manning may be inadequate to carry out all tasks safely. Or is it only a matter of perception? Recently, in The Island Aurora and The Island Discovery [2022], Ferry and Marine Workers Union in Canada challenged the issuance of SMD by Transport Canada. First case of its kind to my knowledge.

The two vessels were issued 3 separate SMDs to accommodate fluctuations in passenger levels throughout the year. One of the SMDs was for 5 crew for up to 145 passengers. The older ferries which were being replaced by these two new ferries, regularly sailed with 6 or 7 crew. The Union was of the view that crew of 5 was not enough to deal with emergencies, comply with owners’ operational safety requirements in the SMS and the applicable regulations. One such situation highlighted by the Union was man overboard situation. Transport Canada agreed but said that it wasn’t required to consider all scenarios in its assessment for minimum manning.

What did the court say? To start with, it did highlight that there can be serious consequences of vessels being understaffed and some of the reports by TSB made that point also. However, determining minimum safe manning is a matter of policy and best left to government bodies. Here, Transport Canada acted within the ambit of rules. The court considered various emergency scenarios put forward by the Union before coming to this decision. Cannot summarize all of it here, but in short it stated that Transport Canada wasn’t required by the rules to consider all emergency scenarios. One of the emergencies discussed was fighting a fire. The court noted that the two new vessels were setup differently from the aging ferries and many tasks were now not required to be performed manually.

Issuing SMD with 5 crew was justified here. Afterall, owners are free to implement higher manning levels where appropriate.

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