The following words are taken directly from the World Health Organization (WHO) Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality 4th edition, published in 2011, to describe Water Safety Plans (WSPs):

The most effective means of consistently ensuring the safety of a drinking-water supply is through the use of a comprehensive risk assessment and risk management approach that encompasses all steps in water supply from source to consumer.”

Most cruise industry public health, medical and operational professionals are already well aware of SHIPSAN ACT – a European Joint Action project funded by the EC developing a European-wide legislative and best practice framework for hygiene standards on passenger ships. The WHO, HACCP-like, system of WSPs for water safety has been adopted as an integral part of SHIPSAN and is included as a requirement within the “European Manual for Hygiene Standards and Communicable Disease Surveillance on Passenger Ships” (SHIPSAN Manual).

The current SHIPSAN Manual covers water safety for all potable water and recreational water facilities. It is already being used by some European port health authorities as a framework for their Ship Sanitation Certificate and also for pilot ship inspections as part of the SHIPSAN project development.

In June, SHIPSAN held a first advanced training course for water safety on ships in Athens, based upon the WHO guidelines for the development and implementation of WSPs. The training course and conference was attended by over 90 people including cruise line professionals, port health officials, public health consultants, service and technology suppliers and the SHIPSAN team as well as a number of eminent public health experts including Captain Jaret Ames, Professor Chris Bartlett, Dr Sebastian Crespi and Dr Gordon Nicholls amongst others.

The cruise industry, generally, operates to extremely high standards of water safety already but it was all too clear from the SHIPSAN training course that there are knowledge gaps within and between Technical, Marine and Hotel department personnel. It was also apparent that there were many different levels of understanding of the risks of water safety.

The emergence of WSPs for the industry is similar to the requirement to implement HACCP-based systems for food hygiene a few years ago. Both require the application of hazard analysis principles and to consider a more holistic approach, from production, supply and storage through to consumption. It is expected that the cruise industry will soon recognise that the benefits obtained from a RACCP Plan for food safety can be duplicated by WSPs for water safety.

However, it will require quite a significant change of mind set towards water safety at both corporate and shipboard level. The biggest challenge apart from resource is, perhaps, that water safety management involves all aspects of the ships operation and any WSP will need to clearly identify the responsibilities of shipboard personnel. It also requires the full ‘buy-in’ and involvement of a WSP team for its successful development and implementation. It is not something that can effectively be done externally and ‘imposed’ on the ship, however, it is almost certain that specialist consultants will be called upon to facilitate the development of each ship’s WSP.

Whilst not yet a legislative requirement for the industry, it is looking very likely that the WSP approach to water safety will be adopted in the not too distant future by, not only, European but also other major port health authorities across the world. Clearly, should the CDC include the implementation of WSPs as best practice within the next revision of the VSP this will impact significantly on most cruise operators. It is also known that authorities in Australia, Brazil and China are looking closely at the SHIPSAN provisions for water safety management and are considering their own position on the requirement for ships to have WSPs in place.

One major cruise line, represented at the SHIPSAN training course, acknowledged that they had already started making plans for the development and implementation of WSPs across their fleet regardless of whether it became a regulatory requirement to do so or not. They simply recognise that the implementation of fleet wide WSPs is proven best practice in water safety management and, according to them, their all encompassing safety culture demands nothing less.

It will be interesting to see whether the cruise industry adopts WSPs as the way forward to improve water safety on board and take advantage of the benefits they bring now, or wait until legislation is introduced.