Sampling and volume measurements during COVID-19 restrictions
How do you manage witnessing of tank sounding, sampling and exchange of appropriately labelled sample bottles when the receiving ship and barge crew are not allowed to move between the two? Are you still able to use surveyors? These have become acute issues due to precautions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, which we examined during discussions with IBIA members at the end of April.
In many respects, off-shore bunker deliveries have already been managing this for years as they operate in an environment where moving between the receiving ship and supply tanker mostly poses unacceptable risk to crew. They therefor have to manage the entire process remotely. The receiving ship’s crew connect the bunker hose. Often, both the receiving ship and the bunker tanker take samples during delivery. The exchange of commercial and statutory samples and countersignatures on sample labels and the bunker delivery note take place by passing them between the receiving ship and bunker tanker using cranes.
Sampling in progress
Similar methods have recently been adopted by some companies operating within port limits because they apply strict social distancing policies, allowing no movement of personnel between receiving ship and supply vessels, even if the port authority doesn’t expressly forbid it.
A surveyor, following guidelines to minimise the risk of spreading the virus, can provide independent third-party oversight over the bunkering process. A surveyor can undertake sounding of tanks pre- and post-delivery and oversee the sampling. In many cases where no crew is allowed off the receiving ship or supply barge, surveyors have been allowed to move between them providing they take appropriate precautions. Many of these were described by IBIA in mid-March.
Examples of guidelines required for the surveyor to come onboard can include providing documentation such as a health declaration, assurance that they have no COVID-19 symptoms, and wearing personal protective equipment (PPE).
However, cases have been heard where both a representative for the receiving ship, and independent surveyors, have been denied access to bunker barges, either by the barge owner or local authorities.
We heard examples where the chief engineer has had to issue a letter of protest (LOP) because they have been unable to take part in sounding on the barge side and there have been discrepancies in the volume readings. Disagreement about quantity have in some cases been resolved on the spot, but not always.
The extent to which parties run into these kinds of difficulties vary between jurisdictions. For example, we heard that in some areas, including the US eastern seaboard, local authorities were preventing surveyors from boarding bunker barges.
Overall, the practical operational obstacles faced by the industry during the COVID-19 crisis were described by one party as “mostly inconveniences” rather than issues that will harm relationships or business. For the most part, there is a recognition and mutual understanding of the challenges at hand on all sides, and parties find a way to make things work.
We also heard that ports have been putting measures in place to encourage cargo throughput and overall port activity, realising they do not want the flow of critical goods to be hampered by operational snarl-ups.
One way forward could be to use technology to allow surveyors to work remotely. Classification societies have already been developing a range of survey items that can be done remotely by allowing clients to live stream video and audio, and share images with a relevant technical expert. At present it seems this work has been focused on classification surveys and specific items requiring certification. However, the restrictions on movement caused by COVID-19 may prompt surveyor companies to develop and enable remote bunker surveyor services.
We would also like to refer to IBIA’s best practice guidance for bunker suppliers published in April 2018, which comments witnessing on sampling during delivery:
“If for safety or practical reasons the witnesses cannot move between the receiving ship and the barge to be physically present, the process may be observed visually using binoculars and/or could be recorded using safe cameras. To facilitate effective remote witnessing of sampling, visibility of the sampling equipment on bunker barges can be improved by marking the sampling zone with high visibility tape or paint.”