Poor safety standards on floating armoury vessel

Initial report

A security guard working aboard a 50-year-old and 50m LOA floating armoury vessel reported unsanitary and unsafe conditions on board. These vessels provide privately contracted armed security personnel to commercial ships for armed protection while they transit areas of high risk.

Despite having a maximum capacity of 60 people, the floating armoury reportedly carries up to 150, and many are forced to sleep on the upper deck even in rough weather, due to the lack of available bunks. The water in the showers is rusty, there are cockroaches in the food, the electrical wiring is in a poor state of repair and water drips from the cable connections, creating a dangerous fire risk. The lack of an isolation area for Covid cases caused the virus to spread rapidly on board.

Transfers onto and off merchant vessels are made using an inflatable boat, and embarkation is ordinarily by ships’ pilot ladders. Transfers take place even in high sea states (6-8m waves) because the merchant ships cannot afford to be delayed, so these transfers are especially risky.

The reporter stated that the floating armoury is resupplied with food and water at sea: it often spends many months in international waters and rarely visits port due to the difficulties of entering territorial waters with guns and ammunition on board.

Because of this, garbage is thrown into the sea, contravening Marpol regulations. The hull was recently punctured, and repaired using quick-drying cement, but is unlikely to be properly repaired for many months until the vessel next visits port.

The reporter approached CHIRP because there was no-one else that could help them. The reporter stated that the floating armoury vessels and the private maritime security companies who employ the guards vary in quality. Because there is very little access to the internet on the armoury vessels, they could only contact CHIRP once embarked on a merchant ship.

CHIRP Comment

CHIRP raised these concerns with the Master and owners of the floating armoury vessel, who initially said that they wanted to improve conditions on board. However, no significant changes occurred so CHIRP passed the report to the vessel’s registered flag state and its classification society, both of whom withdrew registration. This means that the vessel can no longer legally operate at sea until these issues are resolved.

A report issued by the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) in 2020 highlighted that there are no generally accepted international standards that directly apply to floating armouries, nor is there an overarching industry organisation that can set expected minimum standards to which the companies providing armed guards can adhere. Furthermore, because floating armouries operate in international waters for lengthy periods it is difficult to enforce compliance to national or international regulations because such inspections almost always take place only when the vessel is alongside in port.

Unlike the crews of the floating armoury vessels, the armed guards are not recognised as seafarers under the current IMO definitions, but rather viewed either as “passengers” or “industrial personnel”. As such, they have fewer legal protections than the seafarers they work alongside. This, compounded by the competitive commercial environment in which the private maritime security companies operate, reduces the incentive to ensure high safety and welfare standards. CHIRP wonders whether there is an expectation that, because of their military backgrounds, armed guards will be prepared to tolerate poor conditions and to accept increased safety risks?

CHIRP intends to discuss the issues raised in this report with both the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) because of the obvious safety risks highlighted.

Human Factors relating to this report

Fit for purpose – Is the existing international regulatory environment in which private maritime security companies operate fit for purpose? The UNDOC report suggests that this should be reviewed.

Culture – Judging by the vessel’s condition, and its safety and welfare standards, there were many longstanding breaches of IMO, ILO and Marpol regulations, which both the Master and the company employing the guards must have known about. This incident raises questions about culture: are commercial pressure and profit being pursued to the detriment of the guards’ and crew’s safety and welfare? Is this allowed to happen because the guards operate on pseudo-military lines and are thus expected to be task-oriented and tolerant of greater hardships and risks to achieve their aims?

Alerting – The reporter contacted CHIRP because they feared that they would lose their job if they raised this issue through their company or with the Master. Likewise, the Master initially said that he wanted to assist CHIRP in resolving the issue but ultimately this did not happen – was this for fear of speaking up? Are you in a similar position – if so, CHIRP is interested in hearing from you? Similarly, the ITF and ISWAN can assist with employment issues and welfare.

Local practices – The report highlighted several poor local practices such as throwing rubbish overboard and using the inflatable boat to transfer people to other vessels in high sea states.  The condition of the vessel indicates that on board maintenance was similarly inadequate. All these significantly increase the dangers to the safety of people on board and to the environment. The correct procedures should be documented in the vessel’s Safety Management System


Report Ends…………………