Panama Canal simulation

Study Raises Safety Concerns over New Panama Canal Locks

(With video) An independent safety study into the Panama Canal expansion, which was commissioned by the ITF (International Transport Workers’ Federation) has raised pressing concerns about the canal’s new locks. Yet, the Panama Canal Authority has dismissed the claims.

The ITF commissioned the study, which was carried out by Brazil’s Fundação Homem de Mar (FHM), in response to safety concerns raised by its Panamanian member unions. FHM was tasked with preparing a mathematical model, using a Manoeuvring Simulator Class A, to recreate the new locks, a neo-Panamax vessel and the tugboats that would assist its manoeuvres.

Compromised Safety of Manoeuvrability

The concerns raised by the unions centred on the Panama Canal Administration’s refusal to engage in dialogue on matters such as training, as well as the technical and construction issues that have led to delays in the operation of the new infrastructure. After simulation exercises (see the video below), using a neo-Panamax model vessel and two tugboats, it was concluded that the safety of manoeuvrability is compromised due to several factors:

  • The locks’ dimensions are too small for safe operation (with both gates closed);
  • There are no refuge areas for the tugboats inside the locks, leaving no room for failure (human error, miscommunication, broken lines or engine failure);
  • The bollard pull is insufficient;
  • In terms of manoeuvrability in the locks, the control of the vessel was compromised under the average environmental conditions present in that geographic area (data provided by the contracting party). The main reasons were the low power of the tugboats and the required bollard pull. With milder conditions the exercise was concluded safely.
  • The study recommends that a complete risk analysis and special training should be carried out to avoid any accidents that may result in loss of life or pollution.

Panama Canal Authority Dismisses Claims

In a response, the Panama Canal Authority states the claims in the study are not based on mathematical models and do not include data from physical navigation tests. The Authority therefore feels the study lacks scientific accuracy and credibility and admonishes the authors lack of training. The Authority also stresses plenty of studies have been undertaken and outside industry experts support the way the new locks operate.

The study can be downloaded (PDF). A video of a simulated transit can be seen below. The picture at the top is a still from the same video.

Author: Mariska Buitendijk

Mariska Buitendijk is one of SWZ|Maritime's journalists as well as the magazine's copy editor.

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