Claudia Ohlmeier: Bridging troubled waters
Claudia Ohlmeier’s current project, as she sees it, is to help stop ships being sucked into “a downward spiral” of detentions. Not that everyone appreciates it - at least at first. Stevie Knight writes.
Many owners are facing difficulties says Ohlmeier, who leads DNV GL’s Port State Control group: just at the point where much of the industry is reeling from collapsed rates and being starved of finance, it’s being hit by a “huge wave” of new regulations.
“There were the low sulphur ECA zones, then the MLC (Maritime Labour Convention 2006), a totally new convention that created a lot of insecurity. Now the ballast water regulations are coming in with a ‘hard date’, no grace period, next September.”
It’s a lot to take on, and ship owners can feel persecuted. “There are now risk based port inspection regimes that, once a ship has been detained, will continue to target it,” she explains.
The change in the market has also recently been made more difficult for those who are struggling “simply because the world fleet is getting younger and younger... so while port inspectors used to focus on the really bad ships, the whole industry has risen in quality” she explains. This leaves some vessels even more exposed to investigation than in the past.
Despite all this, Ohlmeier has a hard job on her hands. The problem, as she points out, is that “if a vessel gets detained, that’s difficult enough – and then class comes along and says ‘you have even more work to do – and guess what, that’s going to be an extra bill’...”
Obviously, she says, “some customers don’t see it immediately as a benefit, just a cost - so it’s necessary to explain exactly what we are offering. And why it’s necessary”.
What the project focuses on firstly is making the crew aware of the Port State Control topics – the very items that will cause inspectors to pause – before entering a deeper analysis of the vessel and the management system. Of course, she admits the information is out there, there are circulars, updates and guides available “but that’s so much paper and it often just dies on the shelf”.
She adds: “Nobody stands up in the morning and decides to make a bad job of things, we know that there are usually good reasons behind any lapses.” But it remains, the causes have to be addressed, and she says how you put that “is all about communication – and showing people the bigger picture”.
“Ultimately, you usually find we are aiming at the same goal: a safe ship, with a good reputation, following the rules”. Still, trying to understand the motivation of the person on the other side of the table does help the process.
Ohlmeier’s empathy has been sharpened by her own experience. She’s been with Germanischer Lloyd since soon after college and had some “truly great opportunities”. This included being the first expat woman to work for GL in a technical role on location in China, supporting colleagues in Bangladesh, performing internal audits worldwide, and many other projects in Southeast Asia (Hyundai Shipyard was “breathtakingly impressive” she remembers).
And then came the merger of GL with DNV in 2013: this brought a mixture of benefits and challenges. But Ohlmeier explains: “Although change is hard... for me it has actually opened things up,” allowing her the chance to head up DNV GL’s PSC-focused team. More, she points out there are some very useful insights to be learned from DNV’s Norwegian culture: “In Germany, there’s only one career path – upward. But it might be better to work hard on a project, then move into a different role or maybe take a step aside for a year or two, recharge, and step back in again. In Norway that’s accepted, if not normal.”
There will still be some testing times ahead; she notes: “It’s an odd position, as a class society DNV GL has a public duty to keep ships safe but we are still a commercial business.” And that, she says, means it’s still vulnerable to market issues. More, there is also rising competition in the field, not just between class societies but now other organisations that are moving in on the same territory.
However, she says that the shake-up hasn’t necessarily been a bad thing: “The turbulent times in the industry have also brought many new ideas into play,” says Ohlmeier. “Our merger resulted in the first combined new rule set from a class society,” she notes. “We looked at everything and spent over a year reworking and updating our rules, notably incorporating new and more realistic models to calculate wave loads across all ship types.”
Further, the class societies are being faced with a steep rise in new technology: unmanned or autonomous ships for example. “While as a reality this is a few years off, the systems that are under development have the potential to support the crew onboard and improve overall safety,” she says.
Some tech has moved surprisingly quickly: drones, for example, could now be used to take on internal tank surveys. “This not only saves our customers time and money but it’s a real plus to surveyor safety as it reduces the amount of climbing they have to do in order to check hard to reach areas.” Moreover, merging these new systems could leverage further advantages: “We are also looking to combine [drones] with 3D models to create a virtual environment that a surveyor can work in from anywhere in the world.”
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