What remains one of maritime industry's largest safety issues?

This risk has spiked in recent years, new report finds

What remains one of maritime industry's largest safety issues?


By Ryan Smith

While shipping losses have halved over the past 10 years, fire on vessels remains among the maritime industry’s largest safety issues, according to a new report from Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty (AGCS). The danger was hammered home last week by incidents involving the Felicity Ace cargo/RoRo ship, which caught fire in the Atlantic while carrying thousands of cars, and the Euroferry Olympia passenger ferry fire off the coast of Greece.

AGCS’s annual Safety & Shipping Review report found that the number of fires onboard large vessels has spiked in recent years. There were a record 40 cargo-related fire incidents in 2019 alone – or one every 10 days. Across all vessel types, the number of fires or explosions resulting in total losses hit a four-year high of 10 in 2020, accounting for about one in five total losses globally.

“The shipping industry has seen its safety record improve significantly over the past decade, with the number of total losses now at record lows,” said Capt. Rahul Khanna, global head of marine risk consulting at AGCS. “However, fires on carriers, roll-on-roll-off ferries (RoRos), container ships and other vessels remain among the biggest worries for the sector, as demonstrated by the recent rise in incidents.”

RoRo and car-carrier vessels, in particular, can be especially exposed to fire and stability issues, Khanna said.

“To facilitate carriage of automobiles, the internal spaces are not divided into separate sections like other cargo ships,” Khanna said. “The lack of internal bulkheads can have an adverse impact on fire safety, and a small fire on one vehicle or battery can grow out of control very quickly. Vehicles are not easily accessible once loading has been completed.

“The large volume of air inside the open cargo decks provides a ready supply of oxygen in case of fire. At AGCS, we look deeply into the risk management of operators and have worked with a number of companies operating RoRo vessels to agree [on] a robust risk management program.”

Other findings from the report include:

  • Notable recent incidents include the sinking of the Grande America, a RoRo cargo ship, after its cargo of vehicles and containers caught fire in 2019. In 2020, a fire on the car carrier Höegh Xiamen lasted for eight days before it was extinguished.
  • fire/explosion is the third-top cause in total losses of shipping vessels over the last decade (2011 to 2020), with 99 reported total losses accounting for about 11% of total losses overall. The top two causes of total losses are foundering (54%) and wrecked/stranded (20%).
  • Cargo vessels account for 40% of total losses over the past decade (348 out of 876). passenger/cruise ships account for less than 10% (69 out of 876).
  • Fires on board vessels were the fifth-top cause of shipping incidents overall around the world. There have been 1,700 reported incidents over the past decade across all vessel types, accounting for about 7% of all reported incidents.
  • Container ship fires often start in containers, which can be the result of non-declaration or mis-declaration of hazardous cargo like chemicals and batteries. When mis-declared, these might be improperly packed and stowed, which can result in ignition and/or complicate detection and firefighting. The larger the number of containers on board, the higher the probability that at least one could ignite and cause a fire, and the harder it is to contain and extinguish the fire.
  • Another contributing factor is a vessel’s firefighting and fire-detection capabilities relative to its size. Vessels become larger every year, and major incidents have demonstrated that fires can easily rage out of control, resulting in the crew abandoning ship on safety grounds, thus increasing the size of the eventual loss.

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