Management Consultant

Recent happenings leading to the untimely deaths of three crew members of the MPA, the disappearance of a seasoned captain and the Sir Gaëtan tug-wreck in the immediate aftermath of a major ecological disaster have shocked the nation. Government seems intent on the setting up of a Court of Investigation which might narrowly focus on the active agents close to the point of action. A risk might be run to overlook the global picture and latent organizational factors in the multi factorial chain. The need to examine both active and latent factors has been emphasized by Professor James Reason whose model of accident investigations has been well acclaimed in the domain. To be optimistic, looking at both is not mutually exclusive.

The Port Louis Harbour :

why should we all be concerned ?

The Port Louis Harbour is the only maritime gateway for the Republic of Mauritius. Nearly 96% of all imports and exports transit through our harbour. It’s very difficult to conceive of Mauritius if this port were to be closed for any lapse of time on account of a major catastrophic event. The most immediate hinterland is the City of Port Louis where over 300,000 people live and work daily and where all the seats of power such as Parliament, Supreme Court, the PMO and HQs of many important private firms are to be found.  The major trunk road linking the North, Center and South, runs along a good part of the waterfront. A major accident in the harbour waters and/or the Port land area of some 300 hectares would cause very considerable harm to life in the City, the busy traffic movements and to the entire economy on account of the spill over or domino effects.

There is nothing hysterical in this observation as there have been several accidents in the port in the past. Examples are the FUEL Oil spilling at Esso in 1993, the release of LPG from a ruptured submarine pipeline in 1994, fire and explosion at Shed E in 1999 and fire at the MCCI in 2000.

To put it simply : the Port Louis Harbour region is the riskiest one in the entire country. This is why we are all concerned. It would be inappropriate to be complacent about port safety and the harbour environment. Anything short of a thorough professional approach to ensure port safety management in a pro-active manner at all times would be tantamount to criminal negligence.

Role of the MPA

Part 11, Section 4 of the Ports Act 1998, spells out that it shall be the function and duty of the MPA as a landlord port to regulate and control pollution and protection of the environment within the port area, to enhance safety and security and to provide for the welfare of employees and persons working within or living on a vessel in the port.

Port Master

The Ports Act, Statutes, Government Notices and Regulations confer vast powers and functions on the Port Master. There is no other officer working for a parastatal body in Mauritius who enjoys as much power and authority. Grosso Modo, he has four main responsibility areas :

A) Marine Operations.

B) Conservancy.

C) Environment.

D) Security.

Marine Operations

The most important responsibility of the Port Master is to manage safely the movement of shipping within the Port Louis Harbour waters. For this, the Port Master requires pilotage services, tugs services, port control and mooring. Pilots are the most important assets made available and together with skippers and others an important source of marine experience. Mauritius does not have a Pilotage Act like in the UK. Do we have a Port Safety Code ? Do the various employees such as pilots, skippers, junior pilots, boatswains and coxswains and the like report regularly on all incidents in the harbour ? Does the MPA have a structured non-punitive reporting system ? Are all incidents in our port waters recorded and acted upon ? Do the employees participate in making our harbour safe ?

Tugs and marine engineering

Tug assistance is compulsory as it ensures the safety of navigation, people, assets and the environment. There are several areas of concern in relation to tugs at the MPA ; these fall under the responsibility of the Port Master. Do the tugs we have respond to the needs of the MPA ? Are they overdue for replacement ? Are all the items of equipment such as life jackets, wires for pulling vessels and so on in good quality ? Often, tugs of the MPA were found to be poorly maintained and due for replacement according to independent quality inspectors. Maintenance costs were known to be high for the tugs. Obsolete machinery and lack of equipment spares may lead to unsafe maritime operations. A cause for the recurrence of these problems may have to do with insufficient expertise in marine engineering at the MPA. The MPA has had persistent problems of hiring a competent marine engineer with sufficient seagoing experience. What has been the role of the Board in addressing the issues relating to the procurement of value for money tugs, adequate training of all staff concerned, the proper maintenance of tugs or the selection of a good marine engineer ?


The Port Master is duty-bound to provide for the port environment. The harbour of Port Louis has an extensive land-based port in addition to its harbour waters. The MPA is a landlord port. The OPRC Convention deals with the subject-matter of oil pollution in ports. Compliance with this convention necessitates that the MPA has detailed plans for responding to oil pollution incidents inclusive of the required equipment and a well-coordinated response mechanism system for dealing with oil pollution. All this requires examination.

The need to review the Port Master’s role

Should Mauritius have a Harbour Master or a Port Master ? The International Harbour Masters’ Association describes the jurisdiction of the harbour master as being exercised over the water areas of a port. In the UK, the harbour master’s core duties include the provision of safe movements and moorings of vessels in the harbour. The job descriptions available on the net for New Zealand, Australia and Cook Islands go in the same direction. The World Bank’s Tool Reform Kit provides insight into the functions of a harbour master. It is clear that normally the harbour master is responsible for the marine environment and maritime safety. On their own these are important enough.

In Mauritius, the Port Master is responsible for both the water areas and the port based land area where exist dozens of economic operators. Harbour Masters should normally have a Class 1 Certificate of Competency with command or pilotage experience. The achievement of a Class 1 Certificate requires some ten years of which more than two-thirds include seagoing experience. It would be difficult to find one suitably qualified to assume responsibilities for both safety at sea and environment/safety/security over the land area. Should not the responsibility for the safe management of the port area rest with the DG or one of his assistants ? Are the vast powers of the Port Master a source of organizational conflict ? Is it not opportune to review the organization structure of the MPA in order to remove any form of organizational malfunctioning ?

Air Mauritius functions in accordance with the norms of EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency) which provides for an Accounting Officer (the CEO) and Post-Holders such as the senior officer responsible for flight operations or the officer responsible for aircraft maintenance and engineering. The Civil Aviation Law defines the powers and functions of the pilots among other things. The CEO cannot override pilot in command nor can he functionally overrule a chief pilot over safety issues. It does not mean that post holders can do whatever they want. Normally, the CEO may have a flight safety office to conduct flight safety audits and to apprise him in an on-going manner about all issues relating to safety. Similarly, a DG may not have a Class 1 Certificate but may hire independent safety auditors and/or recruit a full-time Port Safety Officer.

Role of the Board of Directors

The duty for ensuring port safety rests with the MPA corporately. Are we ready to accept the notion that failure of one in matters of safety is the failure of all ? This is an issue of management philosophy of fundamental importance.

The Board has the power to appoint the DG, the Port Master and his immediate assistants and generally assign the responsibility for the safe operation of the harbour to professionals. No Board member can abdicate responsibility in this framework. The Board should have a strategic oversight and corporate direction over port safety. Funds for ensuring port safety must be made available by the Board. Does the Board ensure compliance with international port safety codes ? Does the Board commission for independent audits of the MPA’s equipment such as tugs ? Are risk assessment and hazard assessment exercises conducted regularly ? Does the MPA have a Port Safety Code which would promote a formal process to ensure that a port safety management is thorough, robust, effective and constantly improving ?

Safety management is a continuous cycle and risk assessment must take place in a recurrent, formalized and structured manner. Risk assessments involve employees working in and using the port. Their specialist knowledge is required in the identification of hazards.

No one should be caught pants down if these processes take place recurrently. Minor incidents happening should catch the eye of management ; its responsiveness is to signal to the workforce of care and concern. Repetitive incidents unattended to can become accidents. We cannot afford to have bad accidents in the Port Louis Harbour.