Ship collisions point to flawed safety culture

Damages on the guided missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald off the Shimoda coast. Credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images

The collision of two US Navy vessels with merchant ships has paved the way for wide-ranging analysis to resolve deep flaws in its safety culture that led to the deaths of 17 seafarers, as well as providing valuable lessons for commercial shipping

The stories are well known and will be remembered among the darkest moments in US Navy (USN) history. Two incidents in 2017, the first on 17 June and the second just over two months later, saw 7th Fleet Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, USS Fitzgerald and USS John S McCain, collide with merchant ships, causing the deaths of 7 and 10 seafarers, respectively.

In the case of Fitzgerald, poor situational awareness was found to be a major factor, while for John S McCain, it was inadequate knowledge of the steerage control system. These occurrences were not a blip: many other near-miss situations had occurred during this period. In the subsequent inquiry, serious questions were asked about the USN’s safety culture, looking closely at fatigue, experience, operational oversight, communication, and training.

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