Why Accidents are Often Not Accidental
At the World Maritime Rescue Congress (WMRC) held in Vancouver, Canada from June 15 to 17, 2019, the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots (MM&P Union) partnered with Dalhousie University (Halifax, Canada) to participate in a poster presentation discussing shipping safety.
The “Spotlight on Safety” poster highlights how several maritime calamities were preventable. However, many of these incidents took place due to regulatory non-compliance, commercial pressures, corporate greed, fear of retaliation and lack of oversight by regulatory agencies. Many of these issues persist because there are often ramifications for people who try to comply with safety standards and then suffer retaliation. Crew members may be fearful of reporting safety concerns due to the threat of losing their job or being demoted.
The importance and enforcement of safety standards within the shipping industry relies heavily on the flag state which should be ensuring that the guidelines of the International Safety Management (ISM) Code are followed and regulatory compliance is achieved.
Poster presented at WMRC
Following the WMRC, MM&P published a paper in conjunction with the poster presentation that delves deeper into how the best search and rescue (SAR) response is one that does not have to take place, that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The paper focuses on the maritime safety regulatory regime and the commercial pressures versus regulatory compliance and safety, how maritime incidents pose a risk to life and the environment and the commercial pressures put on front-line personnel (crew and ship officers), safety inspectors, and management.
The IMO and the International Maritime Rescue Federation (IMRF) recognize that prevention is a key function of rescue organizations. By reducing maritime casualties more lives are saved, pollution is averted, and fewer risks to SAR personnel occur. It can also lower costs for SAR organizations.
The IMO, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and national and private regulatory bodies provide a regulatory regime, which if followed, substantially reduces the risk of maritime casualties. However, commercial pressures in the shipping economy may lead to a lack of regulatory compliance in order to maximize profits and avoid prolonged shipyard repairs.
In particular, the ISM Code provides that deficiencies be reported to a Designated Person Ashore, and is designed to inform managers and bring them into the circle of responsibility. However, there is often a tendency to discourage reporting so as to maintain management’s immunity from personal liability. It is difficult to establish a shared safety culture between the ship and management when the future careers of the master and crew may depend on not sharing safety information with management.
Among the contributors to the study, which was presented to the World Maritime Rescue Congress in Vancouver, Canada, were: professional mariners who had been scapegoated by their employers for urging that serious shipboard safety problems be addressed and experts on international maritime law, the international regulatory regime and classification societies.
On a domestic level, operators in all shipping markets are understandably reluctant to forgo income while a ship is pulled out of service to be repaired. In international shipping, where the flag-of-convenience system dominates, owners are free to choose which flag state and class society to use. This results in commercial pressure on flag states and class societies, which may decide to turn a blind eye to safety problems as a way to attract and retain clients. In this scenario, it is no surprise that ship’s officers who bring safety issues to the attention of management are exposed to the risk of retaliation: as whistleblowers they may face punishment, demotion or even termination.
The study illustrates how these complex factors may have contributed to a number of highly publicized maritime accidents that involved significant loss of life or damage to the environment: the 2002 Prestige disaster; the sinking of the Russian riverboat Bulgaria in 2011; the Korean ferry Sewol in 2014 and the sinking of the bulk carrier Stellar Daisy in 2017.
The paper addresses these factors with the expertise of several authors who contribute their knowledge of the shipping regulatory regime and their experiences at sea. The authors also propose several potential solutions that involve moving forward with more effective regulatory oversight and a genuine safety culture.
John W. Dalziel, P.Eng., MRINA, is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Industrial Engineering, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada. He is a co-author of "Spotlight on Safety, why accidents are often not accidental” and was a Presenter at the WMRC. He has had half a century of experience in the marine industry; during that time four vessels he was closely involved with were lost, two sadly with loss of life. One of his cases was raised in Parliament in support of ‘Whistleblower’ Protection legislation.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.