Safety factors within ports and harbors



Mark Yong, Associate Director, & Dr. Richard D Colwill, Managing Director, BMT Asia Pacific, Hong Kong


While health and safety is driven mainly by legal and moral obligations, there is certainly a commercial element too. The major corporations involved in ports, harbors and shipping are very aware of the commercial fallout that will inevitably follow an accident or incident. In the ever more litigious society that we live in, planning and risk mitigation has taken on a whole new importance.

Contemporary port and harbor operations demonstrate a classic case of risk and reward. In order to reap the commercial benefits, ports are catering for a higher volume of shipping with far more vessel movements than a decade ago. The associated risk is that with increased traffic, often in a restricted environment, there is a far higher chance of a ship-to-ship or a ship-to-infrastructure collision. With economic factors driving the need for port operators to maximize revenues, it is necessary that ports optimize all available water space to the best of their ability. This often leads to delays to inbound vessels if berths are not immediately available. Ships waiting to berth need access to a suitable anchorage away from major transit routes and with protection from rough weather; however, this facility is not always provided, increasing the risk of accident or incident.

Safe vessel traffic

The issue of safe vessel movement often extends beyond the port’s jurisdiction but must still be addressed. In areas such as the southeastern approaches to Hong Kong, which provides the principal access to the Western Shenzhen port clusters and Hong Kong’s container terminals, there has been a rapid increase in marine traffic. This has meant a rise in the occurrence of congestion as large numbers of ships try to enter and leave the multiple ports in the vicinity. Recent investment in passage planning ‘expert systems’ by Hong Kong illustrates one element of the response required to such challenges.

In parallel with the issues associated with vessel movements, external environment factors such as wind, waves and currents need to be taken into consideration. The Sunda Straits, between the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Java, have a reputation for strong currents and heavy weather. Ships visiting the cluster of petrochemical facilities near Merak need to be ready to deal with these conditions, especially when in close proximity to port infrastructure or other vessels. Experience pilotage and harbor control is key to maintaining safety.

Challenges posed by new super-sized container ships

The new generation of 12,000-18,000 TEU container ships also adds extra complexity to the issues of vessel movement in existing ports. Vessels of this size are set to become the ‘work horses’ of key international trade routes. While channels can be dredged to accommodate the draft of this new class of vessel, there may be limiting operating windows with regards to wind speed and maneuvering in close proximity to other vessels or port infrastructure. It has been suggested that more onerous operating procedures should be applied to these vessels because of the impact an accident or incident might have. It’s conceivable that a damaged 18,000 TEU container ship could effectively close a port for a number of months if it was disabled in the main channel. Globally, there is only a small amount of marine plant capable of recovering the cargo from such a large vessel, and the same goes for recovering the vessel itself.

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