One of MTM's tankers. Photo supplied by MTM

One of MTM’s tankers. Photo supplied by MTM

In a leafy area along Shwe Gon Daing Road, there’s some serious training underway at MTM Ship Management’s manning and training centre. There are classrooms full of young men in white shirts pouring over notebooks while their teachers animatedly issue instructions.

It goes without saying that oil and chemical tankers are big business globally – however training the industry’s seaman on safety measures is a quieter, yet equally valuable understanding.

“The cargo we carry is often flammable, very highly toxic, corrosive – in short, it can be very dangerous to human health,” said Captain Kyaw Min, head of MTM’s fleet personnel.

It’s so dangerous, in fact, that if a seaman was exposed to the carcinogenic cargo while in the tanker, there is a real risk of contracting leukemia.

“So we are doing very serious training here,” he said.

Most of the 14 ships MTM owns and runs are chemical tankers carrying what is known as “liquid bulk”. It also acts on behalf of owners in a management function, which includes administering crew wages (which can amount to US$1 million a year per ship), ship maintenance, accounting for operational expenses and dry docking expenses. MTM charges the ships’ owners – some of whom reside in Japan and the United States and include companies such as Shell – management fees, which is what makes the business a profitable one. In total, MTM operates 28 chemical tankers, eight oil tankers and two product tankers.

MTM’s tankers ply routes all across the world – from the US to South America (MTM’s main route), to Japan from the major oil producing area, the Persian Gulf, as well as an Asian route that encompasses Taiwan, Indonesia and Singapore – because “they are all oil consuming countries,” Captain Kyaw Min said.

A breathing apparatus set is worn when entering the enclosed space of the cargo area. It prevents suffocation due to lack of oxygen and poisoning due to noxious chemicals.

A breathing apparatus set is worn when entering the enclosed space of the cargo area. It prevents suffocation due to lack of oxygen and poisoning due to noxious chemicals.

Singapore cannot produce oil but it has enormous refineries, including Shell’s.

Domestically, MTM has a smaller sized tanker that travels from Singapore to Myanmar, which delivers oil to Myanmar and carries diesel to Singapore.

Under British rule, Myanmar was an oil-producing country. Across the Yangon River in Thanlyin, there is a refinery that was set up by the British and which has still the “potential to be a profitable venture”, said Captain Kyaw Min. It was nationalised in 1962 and has since fallen into disrepair.

“A lot of trees and vegetation has grown up around it, but the towers and tanks are still there; plus the jetty and pipelines,” he said.

There has been talk that it will be upgraded with assistance from Japan – though the project will of course take years to complete.

Meanwhile, as reports emerge in the media about the exploitation of seamen and corrupt practices becoming more common, such as issuing false Department of Marine Administration certificates for unqualified candidates, it is reassuring to see firsthand how stringent reputable companies are about safety.

“No deaths have occurred on my ships,” said Captain Kyaw Min, who has 15 years of experience. According to the United Nations International Maritime Organisation, every year there are approximately 100 deaths on tankers, all of which occured in the enclosed space of the cargo area.

Rather than the dramatic explosions on tankers occasionally documented by the media, it is the cargo area that poses the greatest risk to life on a tanker. As Captain Kyaw Min explained, entering the cargo area, which on average holds about 30,000 tonnes of chemicals, is absolutely prohibited until the cargo itself has been emptied.

“After discharge and while en route to the next port to pick up the new cargo, we do the cleaning. Only once this has been completed can we can go in to check. Even then a person should never enter alone – a minimum of two is necessary.”

The entire tank is cleaned according to stringent requirements set by international conventions and industry bodies. There are various procedures, including steaming and spraying the area with chemicals. The walls are then washed and samples sent to a laboratory to test for traces of harmful chemicals.

Another reason why the cleaning is so rigorous is that a tanker may subsequently carry a different type of cargo that could have fatal results if mixed. For example, if lubricant oil were to mix with ethanol, “Everyone would die,” said Captain Than Nyaing Tun, MTM’s head of training and personnel.

In addition to the above mentioned risks, the cargo area lacks natural light and has depleted oxygen levels – sometimes to the point where fainting is a likelihood. The Safety of Life at Sea Convention of 1974 (known as SOLAS) requires that a wide variety of personal protective equipment must be on onboard. There are also different types of firefighting equipment.

“Each time there is an accident, SOLAS is amended to make it more and more stringent,” said Captain Mow Kyaw, MTM’s training principal.

An important step in improving the safety of seamen on tankers worldwide is the Maritime Labour Convention, which came into force on August 23. In addition to tightening up safety requirements, it also includes measures to better ensure the wellbeing of seamen, such as adopting social security requirements set by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Senior Caption Zaw Naing Cho has a total of 25 years of experience on tankers, including 15 years with MTM. He studied chemistry at university and was initially hoping to secure a government post.

“But I decided against it in the end,” he said. “I feel more free out at sea.”