Clay Maitland

On a quest for quality in shipping

Lessons learned again?

Posted on | February 28, 2012 | No Comments

April is said to be the cruelest month. It is memorable for disasters, from the Titanic to Texas City, Deepwater Horizon and so on.

Of course, there are eleven other months in the calendar, each with its rueful anniversaries. Most accidents are eventually forgotten: the public’s memory may still embrace the Titanic, and the upcoming centennial of its loss will be widely observed; but who now recalls an even greater sea disaster, the sinking of the Empress of Ireland in 1914?

Each casualty is a “learning experience.” No doubt this will be true of Costa Concordia as well. Beside the specific issues of each accident, a few of the general lessons learned down through the years are worth considering.

A first lesson, to be brutally frank, is that loss of life is less generally accepted, if that is the right word, than it was a century ago. The public generally demands that its floating pleasure palaces will be safe, and afloat. Accidents are not only unacceptable;they are unexpected to a far greater degree than in bygone times. And as for oil spills, as we say in New York, fuhgeddaboutit.

The second lesson is that there is a new factor in the maritime world: government involvement. This can make a relatively minor incident (see: Cosco Busan) vastly more expensive, even if no one even sprained an ankle. A lot depends, of course on where it happened. Much of the world yawns at a ferry sinking off Bangladesh, but heaven help the shipowner whose craft spills a small amount of fuel in San Francisco Bay. The massive intervention of the White House in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is a striking example of what can drive up costs.

Third lesson: the cost of an accident is much greater than it used to be. This is because there are lots more laws and regulations, each carrying its tariff of legally enforced fines and penalties. Also, the world has become more litigious, and environmentally conscious. The horrendous cost of Macondo/Deepwater Horizon has yet to be fully computed, and maybe never will be.

Fourth lesson: each incident does and will give rise to new rules, regulations and laws. These, while usually laudable and necessary, are an additional cost factor, and are a growing burden to an already troubled industry.

Fifth, many business leaders seem not to be well-educated in how to minimise exposure to major, expensive risks. It is true that most companies, in shipping as in other industries, don’t have big accidents. But when one does occur, there are usually management errors not far in the background. The fact that our far-flung industry has such a good safety record only highlights such shortcomings. Training in risk management is in order.

Finally, most casualties, as we learn over and over, result from human error. Human error is notoriously hard to prevent. Sometimes we can identify a cause, like fatigue. But fatigue did not sink the Titanic, or Costa Concordia. Errors of judgment are mysterious things, and safety management systems should include a little button that says: override.

We must accept that “lessons learned”, and their consequences, usually come from hard experience. These lessons are changing the nature of our industry at a growing rate of speed. There are some big, scary “bet the company” risks out there, and maritime executives should always remember scouting’s famous motto: be prepared.


Leave a Reply