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Alcohol Testing at Sea

Posted on 4th March 2022

Risks at sea often come to us externally and can be challenging to control. Issues with dangerous goods and cargo, equipment failure, and weather events frequently test the safety protocols on board any sea-going vessel. But alcohol onboard is a risk you can confidently mitigate and prevent, with a stringent alcohol testing strategy and reliable testing solutions in place. 

Alcohol at sea is often seen as a tricky topic. For many crews, the only failsafe is to impose a blanket ban, but sometimes limiting alcohol entirely feels draconian, especially for teams who will spend extended periods onboard. Most vessels, therefore, operate a tolerance to alcohol often known as ‘controlled’ – permitting its consumption, but only within the legal limit. However, this can create somewhat of a ‘grey area’ where working limits are concerned – such as determining whether someone is fit for work when they have consumed a lot of alcohol the evening before a shift and managing general safety on board. 

Alcohol testing at sea – is there a problem?

Although we are all patently aware of the dangers of alcohol, especially in an already risk-laden environment where alertness and awareness are crucial, it’s still shocking to see just how many incidents at sea are related to alcohol, even today. 

This could be to do with a long history of alcohol consumption at sea, which is taking some time to dissipate. Drinking at sea used to be widely accepted and was a significant aspect of the culture of seafarers. Bans and restrictions started to be imposed in the late eighties – when they were faced with intense pushback from crews who had become accustomed to drinking as part of their job. Now, it’s much more widely accepted that alcohol poses a legitimate risk to life at sea, but a considerably large amount of alcohol-related incidents at sea do still occur. 

The US-based Maritime Injury Center notes several recent significant incidents relating to the consumption of alcohol on board tankers, including the devastating Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 (where the captain was found to have been drinking) and the Cosco Busan Bay Bridge collision in 2007 that caused a smaller yet highly damaging spill in San Francisco. 

Closer to home, the Marine Accident Investigation Board recently referenced several incidents in its recommendation to the Sea Fish Industry Authority to call for a stricter alcohol policy. It followed a spate of alcohol-related deaths – in 2020, a skipper fell through a wheelhouse hatch following a three-hour drinking session in the pub, and the year before, a 56-year-old skipper who was ‘significantly under the influence of alcohol’ died after falling to the deck below and suffering severe head injuries. After a review, MAIB statistics showed that since 1992, alcohol was a contributing factor in 62% of the 42 fishing vessel fatalities that have occurred while in port.

In 2014 the Royal Navy promised to ‘curb’ alcohol consumption after a culture of excessive drinking was exposed following a fatal shooting on board a submarine by a heavily intoxicated crew member. At the time, the acceptable level was the same as the legal drink-drive limit, despite the additional risks associated with being at sea. 

As a depressant, alcohol causes us to experience impaired cognitive function and decision-making abilities, slower reactions and heart rate and delayed brain function. Alcohol significantly impairs judgement, reactivity and ability to swim – all key concerns on board any sea-going vessel.  

The dangers of alcohol onboard are therefore amplified and can include (but aren’t limited to):

*Injuries incidents such as slips, trips, falls and Man Overboard 

*Failure to follow ship safety protocols, endangering life 

*Improper use of ship equipment, inability to operate machinery and equipment safely 

*Lack of awareness/alertness delaying notification of potential threat 

*Disagreements and physical fights on board between crew members posing a risk of injury or death

Alcohol does significantly amplify the risk of incidents occurring at sea – opening up crews to significant issues (and the potential for penalties, should a slack testing schedule be uncovered). 

Protocols for testing alcohol at sea 

The Drug and Alcohol Policy for Ships is the most common Code of Conduct cited when discussing alcohol on board. Shipping regulations state that crew members must adhere to the Drug and Alcohol Policy of the shipping company they are employed by – which throws some of the responsibility onto each vessel. Despite this, some blanket restrictions must be followed regarding acceptable Blood Alcohol (BAC) Levels and consumption on board depending on region and any specific guidelines you are bound by. 

The alcohol policy onboard will also depend on the type of vessel – shipping companies are bound by guidelines from the ICS. In contrast, all ships are covered by the IMO’s regulations, which recommend a maximum of 0.8% BAC during watch-keeping duties. This is surprisingly high given that most companies only allow 0.04% or 0% where consumption of alcohol on board is banned entirely. 

In the UK, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency also notes in MGN 193 that alcohol should be avoided entirely in cold environments, as it speeds up the body’s cooling and can lead to earlier onset of hypothermia should a person who has been drinking enter the water. 

Ultimately it is the responsibility of the captain and senior officers on boards to ensure that the ship’s Drug and Alcohol Policy is being fully enforced at all times – so knowing you have a testing solution you can trust is essential. 

The best methods for alcohol testing at sea

To prevent the misuse or overconsumption of alcohol, most vessels carry an Intoximeter on board, used when senior crew members suspect that someone has consumed too much alcohol to be fit for their duties. It is not legal to run blanket tests or conduct random testing – so awareness of potential intoxication is your first and only line of defence against alcohol-related incidents on board. 

The only way to be sure that your vessel is alcohol safe (besides banning the substance altogether) is to carry out testing using reliable technology designed to accurately identify blood alcohol levels, determining whether a person is capable of safely carrying out their day-to-day duties on board. Even when a ban is in place, an alcohol testing kit is still necessary to ensure that consumption hasn’t taken place under the radar.

One of the major issues ship management faces is a lack of simple, quick and hassle-free alcohol testing systems. That’s where ALCO XS has revolutionised onboard alcohol testing. 

ALCO XS by Martek Marine

As dedicated specialists in safety at sea and innovators, we quickly identified a need for an alcohol testing kit that was always primed and ready, without the need for expensive maintenance or specialist care. 

ALCO XS is one of the most straightforward alcohol testing kits available today, trusted by shipping companies worldwide to ensure continued crew welfare through swift, safe and reliable onboard alcohol testing. Offering immediate test results, ALCO XS is pre-calibrated, so there’s no need to send it ashore for expensive annual calibration or replacement. Simply insert the pre-calibrated cell each year, and your breathalyser is ready for action at all times. 

ALCO XS has also been explicitly designed to meet the new ‘Manila Amendments’ to the Standards of Training, Certification, and Watch-keeping (STCW) and is a DOT-approved Alcohol Screening Device.