In shipping, people come before data

Shipping is not alone in allowing the human element to be pushed aside by the relentless pursuit of numbers.

When he heard the news about the sinking of the ore carrier Stellar Daisy, my lunch guest tells me, he felt his heart ache. There was a sadness that went back more than 30 years to his very first days as a junior officer on ore carriers. He remembered the other members of his crew and made the connection to Daisy’s crew. The lost officers and ratings had families, mothers and fathers, children, girlfriends and boyfriends. They will have heard the news at about the same time, from the ship’s management team, and for them this was much more than a news item. It was a tragedy that changed lives.

We don’t often read paragraphs like the one above in the business press, and not enough in the maritime press. Ironically, perhaps, we are more likely to read human-interest stories on social media, although their writers experience tragedy as a fleeting sentiment. Beyond South Korea, who remembers the details of the capsizing of Sewol or the shortcomings that tragedy exposed? Yet that casualty stunned a proud nation with an impressive maritime tradition. It remains an example of how a series of errors and misjudgements can deliver a tragedy that should make the heart of the shipping industry ache.

Shipping is not alone in allowing the human element to be pushed aside by the relentless pursuit of numbers. Recent widely publicised stories involving overbooking by airlines make the point from another angle. Like the cruise and ferry sectors, airlines have daily connections with people – passengers as well as crews – but even they have fallen for the temptation to view balance sheets as a truer reflection of corporate value than a reputation for safety. There are many instances of profitable companies that have closed after a tragedy revealed poor practice and unacceptable standards.

Thirty years ago another tragedy involving a ferry changed how shipping thinks about the safety of passengers and crew and about the management of companies responsible for safety. In one devastating phrase, the report into the capsizing of Herald of Free Enterprise blasted the operating company for its “disease of sloppiness”. That report led to a long-overdue revision of safety management in shipping which, no doubt, saved lives. There is as yet no indication that the Stellar Daisy sinking was caused by poor management – it’s more likely to have resulted from progressive weakening of the vessel’s structure from loading cargoes of ore over the two decades since the ship was converted from a single-hull VLCC.

Shipping must avoid falling into the trap of thinking Daisy or any of the casualties listed by Intercargo in its 2016 report into bulker accidents and incidents is just another number in a table. Many of these casualties involved loss of life and slips, trips, and falls can cause loss of life without the incidents being treated as a maritime casualty. But I do not sense from those who serve at sea that the best way to minimise human casualties is to remove all seafarers from ships.

The push towards autonomous shipping has been determined not by the need for greater safety standards but by a delight in technological innovation. That only works by reducing each element to an item of data that can be tabulated and analysed. Shipping is essentially a human activity that works best alongside data not as a footnote to it. Think data, think Stellar Daisy, and think wives and children.