All industries, where safety is a factor in their operations, have some form of regulations to govern their day-to-day activities. The railways have theirs, the oil and gas industry, medicine, fire fighters, etc. All these industries are guided and or regulated by rules to ensure their operations are carried out to the highest safety standard possible. But are these regulations enough?
There are two main ways in which regulations come to be. First is after an accident or a catastrophe. It is said that all aviation regulations and laws are written in blood. These regulations are man’s best way of preventing the re-occurrence of such terrible events. In situations such as these, the cost of implementation of the regulations is not a main factor.
In the second mode of regulation formation, a desired situation or metric is envisaged and consequent regulations are formed to help achieve this. This mode is heavily reliant on the economic impact assessment of the new regulation, and as a matter of course, may take some time before coming into effect.
A literal translation of a proverb from the Ewe group of people, who inhabit the eastern part of Ghana all through to the western part of Nigeria, says, “Misfortune does not announce itself before striking.” Do we wait for a catastrophe to strike before we change our laws; do we wait for the bottom line to balance out, before we implement safety regulations?
The Titanic stood head and shoulders above any other ship that had come before it. In fact, it was so big in the eyes of the people who lived then that it was deemed practically unsinkable. However, on 14th April, 1912, the unsinkable sank. There are so many safety lessons to be learned from this accident, but for the purposes of this article, let’s dwell on a lesser known issue.
The Titanic carried 16 lifeboats on its maiden voyage. This was in line with the requirements of the law. The problem was that the Titanic was bigger than any vessel the law had taken into consideration. The owners of the Titanic had even added four more inflatable rafts, but this was inadequate, as later events would reveal. The shipping industry and the owners of the Titanic were aware of the lapse in the requirements. Additional space for lifeboats had been designed into the construction of the Titanic. But until it was made law, the owners felt that the bottom line would be harmed. They also needed to keep up the appearance of it being unsinkable. Including more lifeboats on the ship than had ever previously been required, might harm this image. The handwritten notes of Maurice Clarke, who inspected the Titanic before its voyage and had advised that it carry 50 percent more lifeboats, showed that he feared his job would be threatened if he did not give the go-ahead to sail.
How do we ensure safety when everyone knows that the regulations we have are inadequate? Do we pray for an accident to awaken the powers that be? Or do we wait till the bottom line says it’s okay to introduce enhanced regulations?
None of the above propositions seems good enough. To cover such loopholes, the idea of safety must triumph over the idea of making profits or, at the very least, should have the same priority. A very difficult to achieve scenario but one which must be achieved in any industry where safety is a factor in operations.
I know it’s possible because over the course of my career in ensuring safety, I have seen organisations and also helped other organisations to achieve such a paradigm. In the long run, those who fail to achieve this paradigm shift of at least placing safety on equal footing with profit making will sooner, rather than later, be kicked out of the industry. Unfortunately, this will be at the cost of lives.