Unpacking maritime accidents

Preparation is the key to preventing incidents on ships

By Andrew Moll

Like any good story, accidents can be sub-divided into a beginning, a middle and an end or, more precisely, events leading up to the accident, the event itself, and how it was dealt with.

Everyone remembers accidents, especially if they are accompanied by spectacular video footage. Explosions, collisions and groundings make for good TV, and even lesser accidents can become headline news when accompanied by an incredulous commentary peppered with gratuitous superlatives. However, it is an inescapable fact that by the time an accident has happened, it is too late to stop it.

The essential skill for managing an accident is that of being ready or, to slightly misquote the French microbiologist and chemist Louis Pasteur, “Fortune favours the prepared mind”. In the marine industry emergency drills are all too often viewed as a compliance activity; a necessary evil imposed by the regulator that has to be fitted in to an already busy programme. Unless the crew is blessed by having someone who has actually experienced a real fire,

explosion, collision or flood, emergency drills can quickly be diluted to touch- drills, talk throughs and tabletop exercises that lack any sense of realism. Of course, realism has to be tempered, as no drill or exercise should put anyone’s health in danger. For example, wearing a blacked-out face mask to simulate escaping from a smoke-filled compartment can be realistic and safe if the trainee has a chaperone ready to intervene if injury looks imminent.

Unfortunately, as an accident investigator, it is not uncommon when an emergency response has not gone well to find that the emergency equipment has not been used for months or the record of drills has been mislaid. However, we also have lots of examples of where a well-executed emergency response has saved the day. As a wise old captain once said to me: “It’s not what happens, it’s how you deal with it that matters.” If you hope for the best but train for the worst then, should the unthinkable happen, you and your team will be ready to help prevent a drama becoming a crisis.

But suppose you could stop accidents before they happen? Wouldn’t that be good? Well, the magic bit is we can, but it takes effort and focus.

The effort part comes into play in what accident investigators refer to as precautionary thought. This is the planning and preparation that should precede any activity. It starts with what we aim to achieve, how we intend to do it, what risks there are and how we mitigate them, the training and equipment we need, the briefing that ensures a common understanding of the task and each individual’s role and, finally, Plan B if things start to go wrong. Unfortunately, the old saying, “Failing to plan is planning to fail” is still true today, but my favourite quote belongs to the industrialist Sir John Harvey-Jones, who said: “Planning is an unnatural process; it is much more fun to do something. And the nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise rather than being preceded by a period of worry and depression.”

The solution? Get planning.

The focus part is maintaining our ‘A’ game and not letting anything slide. Simply put, it means not putting off until tomorrow what could or should be done today. This includes inspections, maintenance, defect reporting, record-keeping, training and a myriad of other things that if left unattended can create an underlying unsafe condition that opens a pathway to an accident.

However, focus also involves avoiding the complacency, habituation or familiarity that tempts us into under-preparing because, ‘we have done it all before and everyone knows what they are doing’. That might be true, but subtle, minor changes can accumulate over time if unchecked and, before long, the situation can become quite novel without anyone realising it. Systems might be carrying unresolved defects, there might be new members in the team or, at a basic level, the weather might be different. Routine, particularly monotonous routine, can quickly dull the senses.

Hopefully, good risk assessment will identify the risks posed by repetitive tasks but our individual approach to work can help ensure we do not lower our vigilance.

If the above sounds like motherhood and apple pie, it probably is. But we all have a choice: do we adopt safe behaviours all the time, or only when someone else is looking?

Andrew Moll is principal inspector of marine accidents at the UK’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch.