Who should be blamed for shipping incidents?

Investigations into major disasters such as El Faro and Costa Concordia can overlook the culpability of shipping operators

One of the first things that we, as humans beings, do in times of disaster is look for the cause – and often someone to blame. It is no different in shipping, where in case of accident, crews find their decisions examined as to whether they were sensible and measured or hasty and ill informed.

While it is right that everyone’s actions are analysed to discover the root causes and so lessons can be learnt and shared among the industry, crew often take the brunt of blame – and punitive measures for disasters – as they are on the front line of shipping. By contrast, shipowners, the individuals and companies with true power over wider safety practices and culture, often go unpunished.

For example, despite the fact that the US Coast Guard (USCG) report into the sinking of El Faro, which resulted in the loss of 33 lives, found that operator Tote’s failings in training, and numerous violations of crew rest hour standards, contributed to the accident, it was the master who was ultimately blamed for misjudging the path of Hurricane Joaquin and overestimating the vessel’s heavy-weather survivability.

However, a separate report by the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) pointed a firmer finger at Tote, stating that gaps in training and safety management were part of a wider “weak safety culture” that contributed to El Faro sinking. Furthermore, the blame attributed here to the master was lessened, with the NTSB stating that Tote did not ensure that El Faro had a properly functioning anemometer, “which deprived the captain of a vital tool for understanding his ship’s position relative to the storm”. This is a step in the right direction, with the acknowledgement of the complex factors and levels of culpability that are involved in a major disaster.

A problem remains, however, with gaps in national law that shipping operators can use to evade scrutiny and significant legal action if found to be in some way responsible. Taking Costa Concordia as an example, while the master, Francesco Schettino, is currently serving 16 years in prison for manslaughter for his role in the death of 32 people on board, the operator, Carnival, and subsidiary Costa Cruises both escaped relatively unscathed.

While two on-shore staff, the company’s onshore crisis director, and the cabin service director were given sentences of two years 10 months and two and a half years respectively for their part in delaying an adequate response to the vessel, there was no real scrutiny of wider safety culture issues that could have contributed to the disaster.

Northumbria Law School lecturer Craig Laverick’, who is investigating the case, has expressed concerns that national legislation is used in such cases, instead of the ISM Code, meaning that companies can plea-bargain within the legal process and remove themselves from scrutiny. Giving the ISM Code some sharper teeth could help to overcome this problem.

There is a need for greater harmony between international shipping regulations and national laws so companies are not able to take advantage of the gaps. That is the only way that all parties can be held accountable for their part in major disasters and how safety practices will improve to prevent similar disasters in the future.

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