By Walter Blessey
Over the past 33 years, our company has enjoyed a wonderful
working relationship with the U.S. Coast Guard. As a partner with them in the
Coast Guard’s Bridging Program, we have helped introduce and educate many
newcomers in the Coast Guard to our industry through partnership programs both
in the office and on the waterways.
We have seen firsthand the quality of Coast Guard personnel
and the high level of reverence they have for our industry. At Blessey Marine,
we have nothing but respect for the Coast Guard and will continue to lead the
effort in the bridging partnership. We think that they are as good as it gets.
However, we feel strongly that our industry needs to have a
frank discussion with the Coast Guard regarding the medical standards now
required of mariners to obtain and to retain their licenses. Our company
recently had four of our experienced wheelmen denied license renewals due to
medical issues that could be considered by some to be little more than age
related. Extrapolating this trend to our 500 or so licensed mariners and to the
industry in general, it is hard to believe that a personnel crisis doesn’t loom
on the horizon.
At a considerable cost to us, we are accelerating entrants
into our steersman program. I hope that our entire industry is doing the same
and that we can keep up with the fallouts. Due to the time required to bring
new folks into the wheelhouse, my fear is that the industry can’t keep up with
demand. Furthermore, we are losing our most experienced mariners to health
issues and replacing them with less experienced ones.
It is our opinion that the medical standards being imposed
have gone a little too far. We are unaware of any significant number of
age-related or health-caused marine incidents that would justify the medical
bar being raised so high on our mariners. We feel that there will be more
casualties as a result of inexperience rather than having slightly less rigid
medical standards. We have a 13-year tankerman who has no ostensible hearing
problem but is struggling to have his license renewed for not meeting hearing
standards. We have to reach a balance where folks who have spent their careers
in our industry can continue to make a good living and where serious health
conditions are distinguished from minor medical issues.
Our industry trade organizations have to take this issue
head on, discuss it with the Coast Guard, and see if some of the standards can
be loosened. The inaugural Merchant Mariner Medical Advisory Committee meetings
were a perfect opportunity to begin an open and honest dialogue with the Coast
Guard, and we are encouraged by these developments. The iceberg that will sink
our ship is on the horizon. We all need to act now to avoid it.
Walter Blessey is the chairman and CEO of Blessey Marine Services Inc., a Harahan, La.-based inland tank barge operator.