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Fatigue To Blame For Great Barrier Reef Grounding

April 14, 2011

A tired chief mate was responsible for a Chinese registered coal carrier ship that ran aground on the Douglas Shoal off the Queensland Coast, states the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) in its investigation.

The incident on April 3, 2010, left a hole in the reef about 1.8 miles long and took nine days for the ship to refloat, reports BBC News.

The damage could take 20 years for the reef and its turtle breeding grounds to recover, environmental officials say. Conservationists believe that the this incident highlights the environmental impact of Australia’s booming resource exports to Asia, reports AFP.

According to the ATSB report, the chief mate only had 2.5 hours of sleep during the previous 38.5 hours.

“The chief mate was affected by fatigue and this resulted in a decreased level of performance while he was monitoring Shen Neng 1′s position,” the bureau’s final report on the incident concluded.

Chief Commissioner Martin Dolan says that the ATSB “urges ship operators to comply with international requirements that ensure operators properly manage the hours of work and rest of watchkeepers.”

“Fatigue is one of the key safety risks facing seafarers, and watchkeepers in particular,” says Dolan. “Failure to manage fatigue can lead to loss of life, damage to property and damage to the environment.”

In addition, the ATSB found several other safety concerns that related to the accident.

“There was a sequence of things going wrong that led to a major failure which is quite often what we find in the course of our investigations,” Dolan says.

One of the concerns is in the ship’s safety management system. It did not contain procedures or guidance for the proper use of passage plans, which should include route plans.

Another is that there were no visual cues to warn either the chief mate or the seaman on lookout duty about the underwater navigation hazards directly ahead of the ship, reports AFP.

The report also states that at the time of grounding, “protections afforded by compulsory pilotage and active monitoring of ships by the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait Vessel Traffic Service were not in place.”

The final ATSB report advised that ship operators need to ensure they have an appropriate process in place to handle the fatigue level of its crew mates.

Wang Jichang, the ship’s master was charged with liability and faces a fine up to $51,000. Additionally, the crewmate Wang Xuegang was accused of being in charge of the ship when it crashed.  For Wang Xuegang it would mean a three-year jail sentence and a possible maximum fine of a little over $220,000.

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