Watching the awful video of a lifeboat failure which killed one seafarer, left another in a critical condition and injured another five, one gets a clear message: It’s time for the lifeboat industry to come out of hiding and face up to its responsibilities to seafarers, to accept liability for the products they make, and for organisations such as ILAMA to police their ranks and expose those companies which connive to make a profit at the expense of human lives and injuries.
In the last four days MAC has been advised through ConRepS of incidents during drills and tests involving a half-dozen lifeboats in as many weeks. Put these together with report from late 2008 and early 2009, and we have something akin to an incident every week.
That isn’t good enough.
Manufacturers will blame their disgraceful record on seafarers not operating or maintaining the lifeboats properly and the use of non-spec equipment on them.
They have a point, but that, too, is not good enough.
If so many seafarers and offshore workers can get it wrong so consistently then one can argue that the problem lays not with them but the lifeboats themselves – their designs often badly thought through and inherently unsafe, their quality control sometimes dubious, their operation too complex, their maintenance far from simple and maintenance and operating manuals inadequate.
Lifeboat operation,launch and recovery, should be simple and intuitive but usually is not. If something as complex as a computer program can be intuitive then so can lifeboat operations and it is the duty of manufacturers to make them so.
Any small car built to many lifeboat standards would be ordered off the streets in days. Those lifeboats, of course, comply with regulations, and are sold on that basis, but compliance and safety touch base rarely.
Unfortunately, no surveys or other figures are publicly available identifying those lifeboats which most often kill seafarers. That is a critical bit of data upon which decisions can be made. In the old boys club that constitutes much of the maritime industry nobody wants to disturb the boat with a ripple, let alone rock it. Silence is profitable.
That comfortable conspiracy of silence is harder to maintain in the offshore industry and, as a consequence, lifeboat manufacturers are more willing to respond when faults are discovered. In the maritime industry, by and large, faults in the product or the processes used to make it function are kept quiet, swept under the boardroom carpet.
Organisations of shipowners are, too, complicit in that deadly silence.
That is not good enough.
One cannot expect the IMO to act quickly, it has to produce resolutions that are not necessarily right but which everyone can agree upon. It’s a system that has actually done quite well over the years but which makes change painfully slow.
The answer may be to remove the comfort zone that effectively enables manufacturers to evade criminal liability.
Flag States whose vessels suffer lifeboat incidents and coastal states in which those incidents occur could, with little effort, make lifeboat manufacturers liable for the safety of their products on those vessels and in those waters. They don’t need to wait for the IMO or anyone else to impose it and have the freedom to do so.
Manufacturers have had more than two decades to put their house in order. They have failed.
The fear of criminal prosecution for imposing dangerous lifeboats on seafarers might just do the job that the manufacturers themselves, and their organisations, have failed to to.
That just might be good enough.