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Health and safety

Tug captains' union renews action over Panama Canal safety

21 January 2020

A tug union in the Nautilus Federation has accused Panama Canal officials of orchestrating a campaign against members for speaking up about serious safety concerns at the expanded Canal. Helen Kelly considers the human impact of long working hours and fatigue and what happens when politics sways safety decisions

Tug masters at the Panama Canal have renewed protests over unsafe working hours and conditions following punitive punishments handed out by the Panama Canal Authority (ACP).

In June last year, 13 Union activists were suspended or facing suspension and dismissal from duty without pay for taking part in the long-running dispute over working conditions following the launch of the expanded Panama Canal in April 2016.

Nautilus Federation affiliate Unión de Capitanes y Oficiales de Cubierta (UCOC) believes its members are being targeted by ACP officials for speaking up about serious safety concerns over fatigue at the expanded Canal – which has led to a spate of reported and unreported casualties at the new locks, including the death of one tugboat rating from head injuries during line handling procedures.

UCOC says the ACP administration under former CEO Jorge Quijano has pursued a campaign to destroy the Union, including falsely blaming its members for non-existent delays to traffic through the Canal and orchestrating a media campaign against its members.

That campaign was backed at the highest political levels in Panama, UCOC officials say, with former Panamanian president Juan Carlos Varela in September misinformed by the Canal Board and management about this conspiracy via leaked private WhatsApp messages, known as the Varelaleaks scandal.

The leaked conversation [see Varela leaks transcript box] shows former Canal Minister Roberto Roy informing the former president about plans to cut tug crew, lie about delays to Canal transits due to Union activity, and make tug Captains the guilty party, or patsy, without due process or investigation.

'The persecution of the Quijano administration in its remnants against the Union is being demonstrated,' UCOC officials say. 'The primary objective – the destruction of UCOC.'

Pushed to the brink

In April 2016, as the fanfare of the official Canal opening parties subsided and the world’s media turned its attention to the next big story, tug captains were already signaling concerns over an unsafe culture at the Canal.

The gist of their concerns was that the widening of the Canal had allowed an increase in the number of vessels making transits, and therefore, vessels needing tugboat assists.

It also allowed larger Neopanamax vessels to transit the Canal.

These vessels required at least two tugboats to assist them through the new locks, unlike the Panamax vessels that needed no tugboat assistance. Neopanamax vessel transits through the new lock take about two and a half hours and require continuous tugboat control throughout the lock transits.

Although the widened Canal led to an increase in both the number and size of vessels transiting, the number of tugboats and tugboat captains did not increase. As a result, tugboat captains believed they were working more hours, with more required overtime, under more stressful conditions than before June 2016.

ACP does not adhere to International Maritime Organization (IMO) hours of service rules, arguing that the Canal is an internal waterway and therefore not subject to international regulation. It has no written hours of service and rest rules that govern tug captain scheduling. Consequently, there is no upper limit to the number of continuous hours tugboat captains can work.

According to the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF), tug captains who have refused to accept an assignment after working 10 continuous hours because of their fatigue have been threatened with adverse employment action or dismissal.

An independent report commissioned by ITF in 2018, that interviewed 55 of the approximately 150 active tugboat captains, found that fatigue-inducing schedules were negatively affecting tugboat captain health and performance, and hence the safety of Panama Canal operations.

ACP did not address specific questions put to it about tug captain safety concerns. It provided this statement:

'The Panama Canal cannot comment on labour relations at this time, as they are part of the employment relationship between the Canal and labor organisations. We have steadfast commitment to the wellbeing of our workers and comply with international standards for the safety of our operation and workforce.'

This degradation in safety from tugboat Captain fatigue was illustrated in an April 2017 accident in which a tugboat collided with the US Coast Guard cutter Tampa in the Canal after its Captain had fallen asleep, the report found.

ACP investigated the incident and concluded that there was no other fault on the part of the Panama Canal Authority or any of its employees, in the cause of the accident. It made no change to Canal operations or tugboat captain schedules following this accident.

Then in November 2017, a tugboat crew member assisting in maneuvering vessels through the locks, died of head injuries during a line-handling incident in the Aguas Claras locks. Some tugboat captains believed that fatigue and lack of procedures might have played a part in that accident as well, according to ITF.

Timeline to disaster

Turn of the screw

Since these accidents, in two separate actions, ACP has reduced tug crew levels. In April 2018, ACP removed a third seaman from the tugs, leaving two captains, two seafarers, an engineer and an oiler without any consultation with UCOC.

'Tug Captains came to work at midnight and a clerk told them that there was a reduction in the crew,' UCOC’s officials said. 'However, the traffic controllers, the clerks at the office, the port captains and all the operations hierarchy all the way to the Administrator [Quijano] knew about it.'

That move was an aberration by ACP management, which should have followed specific regulation and protocols for vessel manning, UCOC officials said.

In July 2018, ACP also removed the second, or back-up, captain, who was present during transits of the new locks since their inauguration in 2016.

Tugboat captains reported to ITF that the reduction in crew, particularly the removal of the second captain, increased their workload and their subsequent fatigue while working schedules that they had already found fatiguing.

Removing the second captain also eliminated opportunities for them to take breaks during transits through the new locks, when vessel control was continuously necessary. Captains complained that they are unable to use the toilet, eat, or address other personal needs, when necessary, during vessel assists. To avoid the need to go to the toilet they have avoided drinking water and eating while operating the tugs and their hydration has been deficient, further jeopardising their health.

The ITF report found that ACP created a single-point failure in tugboat operations when it removed the second captain, at a time when the likelihood of errors was already high.

'In effect, ACP has increased the likelihood of captain errors by maintaining fatigue-inducing schedules, and then it increased the likelihood that the resultant errors would lead to catastrophic accidents by removing the one element that could reduce the likelihood of captain errors from becoming accidents, the second captain.'

In conclusion, the ITF said that ACP has a safety culture that 'degrades safety'. It made several recommendations to the Government of Panama enabling it to maintain a minimal level of safety in Panama Canal operations, and to reduce the risk to the health of its tugboat operators.

Tug Captains complained that they were unable to use the toilet, eat, or address other personal needs, when necessary, during vessel assists specially in the new locks and during long escorts, a common practice in the new locks' operations

The Varela files


In November 2019 a group of citizen activists published online leaked WhatsApp messages from former Panamanian president Juan Carlos Varela's lost mobile phone. The scandal had a huge impact on politicians and notorious members of the ruling and economic powers exposing corruption, with the Attorney General Kenya Porcell forced to quit.

Here is a transcript of Varela's conversation with former Canal Minister Roberto Roy informing the former president about planned events of April 12 2018, and the disputed paralysation of the Canal from Union action.

10 April 2018
Roberto Roy
The Captains want a third person on the tugboat that the administration believes is not necessary. The problem is that today they have refused to pass certain ships and we will lose three ships in the day. We will see it in directive.

12 April 2018
Roberto Roy
Just to inform you that the tugboat captains keep complaining about their third seaman. We will try to manage it with the support of the directive, but it is a matter directly of course of the administration.

12 April 2018
Juan Carlos Varela
This is crazy.


13 April 2018
Roberto Roy

The administrator and the directors have discussed this and the decision was made to dispose of [fire/sack] two captains. The process will begin immediately. The consensus is that there has to be a strong grasp for these things not to happen anymore.

13 April 2018
Juan Carlos Varela
I agree.

End of the line

UCOC says the persecution of its members continues despite a change in ACP senior management that showed some initial interest in improving Canal safety. A former ACP official who has also worked for General Electric, Ricaurte Vasquez, took over as Canal Administrator, replacing Jorge Quijano, in September. Espino de Marotta become deputy administrator in January, when Manuel Benitez retired. 

UCOC's representatives called the supposed U-turn by the new officials over tug safety and crew working hours a 'sham'.

UCOC officials and m embers picket ACP offices. Image: UCOC

Members picketed ACP offices in December, but offials said many were scared to join for fears of further reprisals. 'The personnel policies toward us continue as usual.'

It was a black Christmas for UCOC members, particularly those who were suspended during the holidays. 'Management remains undeterred, deaf and aloof from reality,' officials said.

UCOC will continue to push for the suspension of its members from duty to be dropped and for compensation to be made. It has called for tug captain’s schedules to be reviewed to reduce fatigue and for the second captain to be returned to each vessel.

UCOC wants ACP to introduce written hours of service rules that govern tug captain scheduling and an upper limit to the number of continuous hours tugboat captains can work. If it fails to do so, casualties due to tug captain fatigue will continue, UCOP said.


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