Safety study raises concerns over Panama locks

Safety study raises concerns over Panama locks
The expanded Panama Canal will be officially inaugurated on June 26

A new independent safety study  raising concerns over Panama Canal’s new locks has been dismissed by the Panama Canal Authority (ACP).

The report, which was commissioned by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), claimed that the new locks are too small for safe operation (with both gates closed), adding that their dimensions, the lack of refuge areas for the tugboats inside them, and an insufficient bollard pull compromise the safety of manoeuvrability.

The study, which was carried out by the Brazilian firm Fundação Homem de Mar (FHM) after safety concerns were raised by ITF’s Panamanian member unions last year, relied on a simulator to recreate the locks, a neo-Panamax vessel and the tugboats which would assist its manoeuvres.

However, the ACP argued in a statement that the claims made in the document are not based on mathematical models and do not include data from physical navigation tests, adding that the study lacks scientific accuracy and credibility.

The study, which was released at a press conference in Panama and is being made available to the ACP, claimed that the lack of refuge areas for the tugboats leaves no room for failure, including miscommunication, human error, broken lines or engine failure.

The report added that the control of the ship was compromised under the average environmental conditions in the area, mainly due to the low power of the tugboats and the required bollard pull.

When carried out with milder weather conditions, the exercise was concluded safely.

The study was based on ACP’s original plan to use one forward tug and one aft tug. However, ITF’s general secretary Steve Cotton said that the union became aware that compensatory alternatives were being examined and welcomed them.

The ACP said in a statement that the Panama Canal spent nearly ten years to evaluate and analyse the design of the expanded Panama Canal’s locks, adding that this process included conducting internal and external studies to determine how the new locks should operate.

According to the ACP, this process led to its choice to use up to four tugs to navigate ships, with outside industry experts concluding that its decision was correct.

Peter Pusztai, Panama Canal’s pilot training coordinator, said in a statement: “The ITF’s claims are unproven and contain many errors. Despite their false claims, we look forward to transforming the maritime industry through the opening of the expanded Panama Canal.”

Last year, ITF’s Panamanian member unions claimed that the ACP refused to engage in discussions regarding training, and the technical and construction issues which led to delays in the operation of the expanded canal.

Cotton said in a statement: “I wish I could report that the study gave the new locks the all clear. Sadly, I can’t. Instead we face a situation where those working on the canal, and those passing through it, are potentially at risk. That will have to change.”

According to Cotton, the issues raised by the study will not be a “surprise” to workers on the canal. He added that those who will be working the locks have to be brought into the process “while there is still time to fix the defects”.

“We believe that this is an issue where there is common ground with ship owners, insurers and others in the maritime industry, so we will seek to engage them in the discussions and strategies for improvement in this crucial area and may also consider updating the simulation to cover new manoeuvring alternatives in co-operation with the PCA, as well as other shipping industry representatives,” he said.