25 October 2016
The Marine Department's failure to implement the recommendations of probes into marine accidents in a timely manner has compromised maritime safety in Hong Kong, the Ombudsman says. Photo: HKEJ
The Marine Department's failure to implement the recommendations of probes into marine accidents in a timely manner has compromised maritime safety in Hong Kong, the Ombudsman says. Photo: HKEJ

Marine Dept slammed for lax follow-up on accidents

The Ombudsman has accused the Marine Department of being irresponsibly lax in following up on accidents and potentially putting maritime safety in Hong Kong at risk.

An investigative report released Tuesday by the Office of the Ombudsman revealed delays of several years before the department took any action on recommendations in reports of investigations into marine incidents. 

It also found that the department’s records were “muddled and confusing” and that it regularly took the word of vessel operators that recommendations had been implemented, without attempting to verify whether this was the case.

The Ombudsman initiated its probe into the department’s operations because it was suspected of a pattern of behavior, spanning years, of not having fully implemented the recommendations in reports on investigations, the Hong Kong Economic Journal reported Wednesday.

The probe was triggered by a serious marine accident off Lamma Island in October 2012.

One of the vessels involved in the collision was not fitted with a watertight door. As a result, water entered the ferry, which sank rapidly.

Thirty-nine people died.

The incident cast doubt on whether the department had followed the recommendations in the report of an investigation back in 2000, when a government vessel under maintenance at a dockyard sank after water entered its hull because the watertight bulkheads were not intact.

The key recommendation was that the department should examine the watertight bulkheads for all vessels of the same type.

After looking into five marine incidents, the Ombudsman concluded that the department had not taken any follow-up action for years after investigations into all of them were completed.

In the case with the most serious delay, the department only took action to follow up on the recommendations made in the incident report eight years and seven months after completion of the investigation.

The department only notified the related parties but did not monitor the implementation of the recommendations, the Ombudsman’s report said.

The report said that was undesirable, because the vessel in question could still present a certain hazard when entering Hong Kong waters again.

Although the department set up a computer system at the request of the Audit Commission in June 2013 after the Lamma accident, so that timely reminders could be issued to the officers responsible for maintaining standards, the Ombudsman found that the department has since continued to rely mainly on progress reports from vessel operators and related agencies on the implementation of recommendations.

Once it received a reply from these parties that implementation was completed, the department ended its follow-up action without making an independent verification of its own, the Ombudsman said.

As regards the management of computer records, Ombudsman said the department could not locate any record it asked for about the follow-up action taken in one case, clearly showing that its records were muddled and confusing.

In conclusion, Ombudsman urged the department to actively verify whether all the recommendations in incident reports are implemented instead of relying on reports by the related agencies or parties.

It also urged the department to take appropriate follow-up action to implement the recommendations in cases involving vessels not registered in Hong Kong or not certificated locally.

While the Ombudsman’s office said the department has accepted its recommendations and started taking follow-up actions, Democratic Party lawmaker James To Kun-sun said he has not seen any improvement in investigations into marine accidents since the Lamma accident occurred.

He demanded that the government clearly explain to legislators after the Legislative Council election in September what has been done to reform the Marine Department.

[Chinese version 中文版]

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