DISCLAIMER: My views are MY. VIEWS. I do not represent anyone's perspective but my own as a private individual and mariner. Nor, heaven forfend, do I speak for my employer or anyone else. This is just me, shooting the shit.
Investigators determined in a report released in October that the probable cause of the allision of the Cooperative Venture towing vessel with the St. Paul Union Bridge in Minnesota was “the operating company’s assignment of an inexperienced pilot who incorrectly positioned the tow prior to maneuvering through a turn with a following current when approaching the bridge span.”
The Cooperative Venture was traveling southbound on the river with a 17-barge tow and a crew of 10 when it hit the bridge. This made Johannson take pause. In all the years that he’s studied towing vessel accidents, he’s never seen the NTSB place probable cause on a vessel’s operating company. He cited numerous other NTSB rulings that faulted the captain or another individual on the vessel, not the company.
For example, in the 2015 allision of the tug Peter F. Gellatly with a pier in Bayonne, N.J., which caused $2.7 million in damages and fuel oil discharge into the waterway, the NTSB found probable cause to be poor communication between the captain and engineer.
In 2013, the Bayou Lady was pushing six empty hopper barges to a scrap yard in Morgan City, La., when the barge struck a bridge near Houma, La. The NTSB said probable cause was the “decision of the captain to transit the bridge opening in windy conditions.”
Johansson thought the Cooperative Venture decision was especially interesting since the new federal towing vessel inspection program, Subchapter M, which went into effect in July, states that the master is responsible for the safe operation of the vessel.
The NTSB rulings have “gone from master to management, so will the next step be the owner?” he asked. “I just found it striking. I don’t know if anyone else sees it that way. I may be off on this, but it seems like a big shift and it’s shifted very quickly.”
It’s not clear what this might mean for towing companies, but Johansson said it could cause them to “think twice about how they are preparing or vetting their crewmembers to be on a vessel.”
So, are accidents now managment's fault?
Yes, surely at times they are."Your replacment is just a phone call away." I've heard this said to me, and I've heard this said over the radio from other people, for example, talking about why a 105-foot tugboat was outbound from Galveston Bar after the 800-foot ship I was on was the first one to cross the bar inbound and the pilot begged the tug's captain to turn around for the sake of his men.
More on that sort of thing later.
The Cooperative Venture ruling is provocative, to be sure. I can't say whether or not this specific ruling is fair or not. Even so, I believe that this is a very important precedent. The NTSB may well be crossing the Rubicon here, I don't know. But my gut welcomes it.
I had a feeling when the minutes of the B-255 explosion hearings were made public, that we might see some positive developments within our industry over weaponized safety programs. In the case of the B-155 I knew within 5 seconds what happened. Seeing the photos showed me I was right. What made this tragedy newsworthy beyond the shock was how and why it happened, and the insistent, persistent and widespread accusations of corporate responsibility for the accident found some willing ears, which is not a usual thing.
...What we know, what we can prove, what is usual and what is right or wrong are all very important things that don't always matter when it comes to accidents at sea.
Without getting into deep background for non-mariners, the master is the owner's representative on board, yes, but he's also responsible for the vessel, AND THE PEOPLE ON IT. This presents unique challenges, always has. It's why 'the Captain goes down with the ship' became a trite saying. It's why that fatherless shitbag Francesco Schittino is doing 16 years for abandoning the Costa Concordia while there were passengers onboard, (although I'd argue that a 9mm slug to the brainpan would be more just). It's also why whistleblower awards for maritime issues are pretty hefty- it ends your career.
Most American maritime companies have extensive in-house safety programs, most run out by safety departments, employing multiple people. Safety management is a fucking growth industry.
From experience, I'll say that most maritime safety management is just CYA designed to limit liability, with an incidental impact on keeping people safe. It may have been a generational thing, a cultural resistance, or a refinement over time, but in my experience this is no longer strictly the case anymore as safety management began to realistically include risk management. I used to feel that there was an antagonistic relationship between mariners and their respective safety departments, as did (or do) many mariners. There was a feeling that safety departments were gunning AT you, not for you. This may still be an issue in some, perhaps many places, but I haven't felt that way personally in a few years. Perhaps I am maturing too, or maybe it's just that I have had a more positive experience with my current employer. Not to say I don't roll my eyes at some ridiculous shit (a 40-ton container drops on another company's barge, and we get a reminder to wear fucking HARD HATS), but risk management IS part of safety management, and the two combined have actually made things more safe. That, and I can bitch to the safety guys in my company, and they'll speak plainly about whether or not I'm dealing with an insurance-driven CYA issue, or actual safety-related improvement, but either why, why it has to be done. This actually helps. A shit sandwich goes down easier when you know that the guy feeding it to you has to eat it too, and my employer has decent folks there who have kept the real BS away from us. I have to laugh when my friends who work elsewhere tell me that they have to stop and have a safety meeting and log it when someone gets on a fucking 3-foot stepladder. See my comment about CYA bullshit. Not to say we don't have some BS to deal with, but all the safety rah-rah training does make us more safe, and also gives us support when asked to do something unsafe... and that's the crux of the matter, and circles back to what was said at the B-255 hearings. When asked to do something unsafe, or wrong, it is the duty of the captain, or the individual mariner, to say no. This is not exactly practiced in the breech, sadly. "My replacement is a phone call away" carries a lot of power when a man has a family to support. Happily, my own experience has been one of receiving support when I have made a safety call that made others unhappy. It's among the reasons why I'm still doing a job that is no longer something I love. Still, while I can understand succumbing to the pressure to perform for the people who hold the purse strings, just because something is hard doesn't make it less correct. Sometimes things really are black and white despite claims to the contrary. Look up captain John Loftus to see the price of doing the right thing, though. Doing the easy thing can come with a body count, however, and at the end of the day, one still has to be able to look in the mirror without flinching.
So, my own claims of being well-supported are at the end of the day supposed to be immaterial. But what happens when one is not supported? Apparently the B-255 is a really fucking good example. Safety departments can carry out safety kabuki. Companies can dock your pay for forgetting to put on a hard hat in an environment where nothing small enough to be stopped by a hard hat is over one's head. That's easy, and it's visible. "Look, we care. We care SO HARD." Then the asshole who answers the phone at night flips out when someone calls and says there's too much wind or current to dock safely. That's not cognitive dissonance; it's a feature, not a bug, of safety kabuki, and I'm sure it's a temptation to every shoreside manager to simply reply with 'I'll tell them not to do that again,' rather than asking for a head to roll, which, personally I feel should be the minimum response to keep that sort of shit out of the gestalt of shoreside coordinators. I've certainly been pressured to do things by people who don't care that they're asking me to do something wrong or unsafe, based on the knowledge that things will probably work out fine. Until it doesn't, of course, and, hey, that's on me if I fold, and I, and more importantly, they, damn well know it.
This is a great subject for another day with other, better informed people, however.
At the end of the day, things actually ARE safer for me, personally, courtesy of my employer's safety management program, but that doesn't remove the temptation to make everyone happy, to cut corners when there's pressure to get a job done that might not be ideal. The subtle pressures and implicit vs. explicit orders have always been extant, and have always been part of the mileau when talking about maritime accidents. It's been the prerogative of vessel owners and managers to shake their heads and deny culpability when they are questioned about their role in influencing a decision... but again, that's always been the way of it. We're supposed to accept the consequences of saying no. That's our job, right? Doesn't make it right or easy, and that's the refuge of the pressuring shoreside personnel.
Maybe that will change. I hope it does. It won't, and shouldn't, reduce responsibility on afloat staff to stand up to anyone who compromises safety. But it sure would be nice to reduce sources of that pressure.