COLUMN | Why blaming makes things worse [Grey Power]

Photo: UK P&I Club
Photo: UK P&I Club

For years, clever people in the shipping industry have railed against the institutionalised "blame culture," which ensures that any investigation into anything that went wrong ceases the moment somebody has been discovered who can be blamed.

You might suggest that there is nothing unique to the maritime world in this – just look at the utter fiasco of the UK's Covid Inquiry to show that the blame culture remains hale and hearty. But more mature investigation goes further than the attribution of blame; it drills down and seeks to discover why something happened and what were the circumstances that permitted it to occur.

We know by now why there is a reluctance to adopt a more constructive attitude to accident prevention and it is certainly not helped by the custom and practice of seeking to blame the negligence of the crew for anything that goes wrong, whether it is an accident involving death or injury, or a mechanical failure. "Crew negligence" is the owner's "get out of jail free" card and will ensure that the P&I Club will see to it that any financial losses will not be to the owner's account. It will be simple and easy, restitution will be prompt, and the fact that any individual can be blamed will be seen as par for the course. It is the way of the world, the way it has always been done.

"Strategies to reduce the number of the tragic accidents have been ineffective and, in some respects, have made things worse."

It is obviously easier to find somebody to blame than to adopt a properly forensic policy, especially where recurring accidents take place. Take for instance the horrible frequency of enclosed space accidents that kill and injure seafarers, stevedores, and others aboard ship, with numbers of victims remaining obstinately high, regardless of the campaigns, regulations, and IMO resolutions that have been devised over the years. It is as if the toll is inevitable and that nothing humans can do will make a difference.

Writing in the Nautical Institute's Seaways journal, Captain Kuba Szymanski, CEO of the InterManager organisation, suggests that strategies to reduce the number of the tragic accidents have been ineffective and, in some respects, have made things worse. In the absence of discovering exactly why an accident has occurred, an investigation will have rarely gone beyond the conclusion of human error, but not properly analysed the reasons why the procedures were not followed, why short cuts were taken, or why regulations were flouted.

Captain Szymanski points out that "administrative controls" are the biggest issue with enclosed space tragedies, with conflicting procedures and regulations and even the terminology that defines a space imprecise. Such confusion, he suggests, promotes potentially hazardous behaviour. At least the agitation seems to have borne fruit and IMO is now revising its enclosed space recommendations.

"How many of these accidents over the years have been caused because shipping operations are conducted with such haste and urgency?"

But will this make any difference if the blame culture that ceases to investigate once the blame is attributed is not itself changed? Why was the short cut that led to hazardous and even fatal behaviour taken? What prompted the victim to enter the space in the first place? What pressures might have been on the crew, or the individual, to willfully, negligently, or ignorantly take such risks? These should be the sort forensic inquiries that might just determine the important reasons that will provide clues about the true circumstances of an accident.

Perhaps we are just afraid of stirring up fresh controversies and potential liabilities with deeper investigations. How many of these accidents over the years have been caused because shipping operations are conducted with such haste and urgency? You might suggest that ships have always been run like this – think of the boatswain on the clipper ship thumping the last man to get up into the rigging to shorten sail. Of course, we have matured somewhat since then and life is no longer cheap, but dig a little deeper and you will discover the sense of urgency lives on.

The ship must sail tonight. The tanks must be cleaned and ready before tomorrow morning. The containers must be unlashed before we get alongside. The tide must be caught.  Everything is in such a tearing hurry, from the individuals aboard ship, to the management ashore who will be swift to criticise any lack of urgency. You have people whose job it is to "expedite" everything to hurry things along. There will be little thought of the paucity of available manpower in a modern merchant ship, the absolute minimum of bodies who are there to be hurried along. Might this be a major contributor to the mistake being made that caused those regrettable deaths?

The trouble is, that once we have found someone to blame, we just won't look any further and ask these important questions.

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