In the sad aftermath of the September 2007 deaths of three men aboard the Viking Islay, Vroon Offshore Services has been fined £280,000, a sum not too unadjacent to $500,000 for not having an oxygen meter on board the vessel. To put that into context, Vroon Offshore could have bought 500 meters and maybe had a few left over for spares for that sort of money and, in the opinion of Judge Robert Moore of Sheffield Crown Court, three men might still be alive.
Noteworthy is the fact that while the Viking Islay’s master, Donald Fryer, had to face criminal charges in relationship to the incident, and subsequently found innocent by a jury, the person or persons in Vroon’s offices who made questionable decisions of policy and who felt that oxygen testing equipment was unnecessary aboard the vessel were not, only the company could be prosecuted.
One could argue, as Vroon’s defence apparently did, that the incident would have happened even if the meter had been aboard. One could argue that without such a safety-critical piece of equipment aboard, the vessel was unseaworthy and should not have sailed.
One can argue until the cows come home but unless safety is seen as the direct responsibility of everyone within a company, seafarers will continue to die of oxygen deficiency, toxic fumes and other causes of fatalities in confined and enclosed spaces.
Naturally, the Viking Islay incident highlighted safety training for seafarers. What hasn’t received much attention is safety training for those onshore whose decisions affect safety.
Too often, policy, and even purchasing decisions are made without anyone thinking “can this decision kill or injure someone or cause loss or damage of the vessel?”.
Consider this extract from the MAIB report on the tragedy:
“It was Vroon’s policy that dangerous spaces should only be entered in port (with appropriate specialists in attendance). Accordingly, the company did not provide the specialist equipment required for members of the crew to safely enter such spaces when their vessels were at sea… Although the reason why the crew on Viking Islay had elected to enter the chain locker could not be considered an urgent task, there will be occasions when entry into the space at sea is necessary. These could include, for example, inspection for damage, to free a bight in the anchor chain, to unblock the bilge strainer, and to release the bitter end. Evidence was found on other Vroon vessels that entry into the chain locker was considered necessary on occasions.
While the Vroon policy restricting confined space entry to port was clear to shore-based staff, it did not take account of scenarios that could require crews to enter confined spaces while at sea.”
“The result of the company’s policy on entering dangerous enclosed/confined spaces was that Vroon did not supply Viking Islay with the equipment required to make a safe entry to a dangerous enclosed/confined space.”
No-one it seems, had compared the policy against the reality. For a variety of reasons entry in confined or enclosed spaces had been found necessary on a number of Vroon Offshore’s vessels.
Sheffield Crown Court heard that six months before the incident, David Fryer had requested an oxygen meter but none had been provided. Judge Moore considered this to be the most serious of the company’s failings.
First, a policy was drawn up which was impractical to implement. Such policies reduce the overall credibility of other policies and procedures and encourage ‘acceptable deviance’ – when procedures and policies are routinely ignored or otherwise deviated from even when valid and become acceptable because ‘everyone does it’.
Such policies, while perhaps covering a company’s legal responsibilities do not keep seafarers safer.
When policies are formulated without regard to how ships actually operate they are worse than useless, they are downright dangerous.
Second, it would appear that those making the decisions regarding providing oxygen meters were not aware of the importance of oxygen to staying alive and that regardless of the faulty policy, an oxygen meter is a vital piece of safety equipment.
No-one onshore, it appears, had thought to themselves “If the vessel doesn’t have this piece of equipment can anyone die?”
Three people did die. Possibly because no-one asked themselves that question.
Regardless of fault, what the Viking Islay incident shows is that safety is a systemic issue. It involves those onshore as much as it does those seafarers whose lives are directly at risk.
There are mountains of statutory requirements for seafarer training. Perhaps it’s time to look at those working onshore, whose decisions, or lack of decision, directly affects the safety of workers at sea.