Joining the data dots: cruise ship MOBs

New man overboard data for cruise ships shows ‘isolated’ incidents make up a bigger pattern of safety failings

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The revelation that 284 people have fallen off cruise ships and 41 from larger ferries since 2000 has prompted a conversation on the industry’s safety practices.  From an average of 1.5 people that fall overboard from cruise ships each month, only 17% are rescued.

Two key questions arise from the recently released data. How have incidents continued this regularly for so long with no industry-wide action being taken, and second, what can be done to make these statistics drop – and quickly?

Without a central reporting agency, it has been hard to gauge the scale of the issue until now, with incidents often reported on a case-by-case basis and so much easier too ignore. The figures, publicised in a Quartz article, came from research undertaken by Memorial University of Newfoundland academic Ross Klein who compiled information from local media reports, tips from passengers and crew, and incidents verified from cruise lines and authorities.

This incident data should lead to a shift in the way man overboards (MOBs) are regarded in the cruise ship industry and prompt action to better protect against them. While there are undoubtedly cases of passengers wilfully (or drunkenly) ignoring safety warnings, one cannot ignore the wider pattern of risk shown by Klein’s data. Cruise lines should certainly veer away from blaming passengers and find better ways of safeguarding them.

Ultimately, we need a shift in culture. It is hard to imagine the public accepting 1–2 people getting injured or dying during a routine flight each month. This is largely because safety protocol is given prime status and rigorously adhered to at all times on passenger planes, despite the incredibly low frequency of aerospace accidents.

Of course, it is much easier to fall off a ship than it is out of a plane. While minimum railing heights and other structural barriers are used to prevent people falling overboard, these measures clearly need reviewing – and not just for accidental falls but for those intending to take their own lives by jumping overboard.

Requiring all cruise ships – or all merchant vessels for that matter – to have the latest MOB detection systems on board that include sensors and video surveillance and have drastically reduced false alarms could improve the number of people rescued after falling overboard.

It is hoped that Klein and others lobbying for a non-binding ISO standard for MOB systems across the industry, due this year, will be successful. However, without being mandatory, most organisations will not undertake the improvements required to drastically improve results. The ongoing battle will be to get companies to review their protocols and create a solid safety culture that always strives for improvement.