The dramatic sinking of Titanic 100 years ago led to a public outcry for tougher maritime health and safety standards around the world.
Today, marine transport is regarded as one of the safer forms of passenger transport. However, more complex technology, larger vessels and human error continue to pose a challenge.
And January’s Costa Concordia cruise ship disaster and the February sinking of the Rabaul Queen passenger ferry are reminders that deadly accidents can still occur. As with Titanic, crucial lessons are often only learned in the aftermath of events such as these.
Shock of the Titanic
That just 711 people out of 2,224 passengers and crew survived the sinking of Titanic came as a shock on both sides of the Atlantic in 1912.
Reports suggest officers ignored warnings of icebergs from other ships, continuing at a high speed until the impact occurred, tearing a 100 metre-long hole in its bowels. The insufficient number of lifeboats also contributed to the widespread loss of life.
The disaster prompted the publication of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) in 1914, a landmark treaty on international maritime safety. Other improvements to health and safety rules have been made over the following 100 years, many of them driven by the International Maritime Organization (IMO).
Along with stricter health and safety rules, new technology has also helped to make the seas safer. This includes military innovations such as radar and global positioning systems (GPS), which reduce accidents by improving “situational awareness”. In addition, search and rescue missions are aided by modern (satellite-assisted) location finding technology.
At the same time, better ship building techniques, design and materials have also contributed to safer vessels.
“Technology has been a key driver of safety, from the introduction of gyrocompasses and the first use of aviation to spot icebergs in 1914 to the mandatory use of Electronic Chart Display & Information Systems (ECDIS) in 2012,” notes Safety and Shipping 1912-2012, a report published by Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty with the Seafarers International Research Centre.
The regulations, together with better technology, training and other safety initiatives have resulted in an altogether safer mode of transport.
“Certainly if you consider the number of fatalities or cases of bodily injury by passenger mile, shipping is an extremely safe method of transport,” agrees Mark Edmondson, chairman of the joint hull committee and hull class underwriter at Chubb Syndicate 1882.
“However, there are of course territories where local regulation is looser than in others, in some parts of the Far East and Middle East for example,” he adds. “This often results in a significantly worse safety regime and culture in those territories and unfortunately over the years we have seen a number of major casualties including significant loss of life.”
Learning from disasters
While shipping losses have decreased from one ship per 100 per year (1912) to one ship per 670 per year in 2009, accidents do still happen. When the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia ran aground on 13 January 2012 it took the lives of at least 30 people.
Less than a month later, the passenger ferry Rabaul Queen sunk off the coast of Papua New Guinea on 2 February. It is thought to have caused the deaths of more than 300 people amid claims the ferry was carrying almost double the number of permitted passengers.
As with Titanic, major incidents at sea are often the catalyst for key changes in maritime health and safety. These latest incidents are likely to prove no exception.
“The Costa Concordia casualty will of course raise a number of issues as to cause and the management of serious cruise vessel incidents and many of these will no doubt be highlighted through formal and industry investigations,” says Edmondson.
“In fact,” he continues, “there is precedent within the cruise vessel industry that shows operators adopting an active response by learning from its casualty experience.
“Modifications that were introduced following the Star Princess fire in 2006 are one example of the industry undertaking decisive risk management action, while the new muster policy adopted by vessel operators post-Concordia is a more recent example.”
The muster policy mandates all cruise ships to conduct drills before departing from shore. Passengers are gathered at assigned lifeboat stations where crewmembers outline what they should do in the event of an emergency and how to put on their life jackets.
Lessons have been learned from other disasters over the past 25 years. The Zeebrugge Herald of Free Enterprise (1987), Exxon Valdez (1989) and the MS Estonia (1994) drove the creation of the International Safety Management Code (ISM Code), which the IMO adopted in 1993 and further revised in 2000. It established standards for safe management and operation of ships and for pollution prevention.
The human factor
Despite these improvements and big leaps in technology, “human error” remains an issue for shipping, according to the conclusions of the Allianz report.
It notes that the pressures of competition and fatigue are often blamed for mistakes made by officers and crew. Busy shipping areas such as the Baltic, where crews have little time to rest between periods of duty, are at most risk of dangerous mistakes occurring.
Edmondson agrees. “Technology and scale are very obvious aspects that can affect safety, but as conclusions from the Concordia casualty are likely to illustrate in rather stark terms, it is the management of these assets and their cargo (including passengers) that requires greater focus.”
“It is a widely quoted statistic that over 50 percent of maritime casualties are caused through human error,” he adds. “Improving the training, retention and performance of deck and engineering staff is, to my mind, a priority for the shipping and insurance industries.”
Find out more about the Titanic at www.lloyds.com/titanic