We all know the answer don’t we?. It struck an iceberg, which opened up a hole in the hull which let in enough water to sink it. Simple!
But it wasn't that simple. The Titanic was unsinkable or so it was claimed at the time.
With hindsight we know the claim was not true.
So what really happened?
Sure the collision with the iceberg was the mechanism that breached the hull letting in the sea and dragging the mighty ship and many of its unfortunate passengers below the surface of the cold Atlantic ocean.
But that’s it, the iceberg collision was just the mechanism, the iceberg was a hazard lying in the path of the liner. It's not the real reason the Titanic sank. For the real root causes of the sinking we have to go deeper.
These days, in our risk adverse society we would expect a risk assessment to be carried out. The assessment would identify the hazards and risks that could be expected on such a journey. The assessment would also identify the corresponding precautions that would need to be taken. Such an assessment may have gone a long way to preventing the collision with better lookouts, or reducing the effect of the disaster with more life boats and better emergency training for the crew.
But would such a risk assessment have identified what really needed to be done to protect the ship and its passengers? It is doubtful that just a consideration of physical hazards would have identified all the causative factors that led to the sinking.
From investigations it has become apparent that it was a sequence of, incorrect actions or lack of action that ultimately led to the collision with the iceberg. However what underpinned those decisions and actions? Why were there so many poor decisions, why did all the events align to create that fateful sinking?
Attitude and beliefs drive the decision making process. The situation of the Titanic demonstrates this very clearly. Many decisions were significantly influenced by the fundamentally flawed belief that the Titanic was unsinkable. This belief permeated the whole sequence of decisions and actions from the time the ship was designed and built to its maiden voyage and its sinking on 15 April 1912.
Because the ship was considered unsinkable insufficient thought was given to the potential sinking by an iceberg. It was not considered as a real possibility. Because the Titanic was considered unsinkable incorrect decisions and actions were taken. For example, the ship was driven at speed through an area where icebergs had been previously sighted allowing little time to avoid the collision. There were insufficient lifeboats for all the passengers. Instead of stopping after the accident, the ship was still driven forward which accelerated its sinking. The crew were inadequately prepared or trained and the evacuation was poorly executed.
The belief that the ship could not be sunk underpinned all these decisions. It was this mindset that ultimately led to the sinking of the Titanic. The owners and the management were justifiable very proud of the mighty ship. It was an incredible achievement of ship building design and construction so they had reason to feel proud. However the pride led to overconfidence in the ship and its capabilities and led to complacency when considering the risks.
What are the lessons that can be learnt from the Titanic event that apply to today's businesses. Most risks assessments would not consider the beliefs, attitudes and decisions of management. Yet a significant number of poor decisions and actions led to the circumstances where the Titanic struck an avoidable hazard with sufficient force to create enough damage to sink her.
Risk Assessments by themselves are not adequate to properly manage all the risks. They need to be applied within a supporting framework.
One lesson that becomes obvious from the sinking of the Titanic is that the health and safety culture within an organisation should be positive and active if a safe working environment is to be achieved. This can be achieved with the proper implementation of a robust health and safety management system which engenders an appropriate culture, including positive attitudes and beliefs.
Pride is a positive driver within an organisation however pride should not be allowed to develop into complacency or even arrogance. An organisation, its directors, management and employees should always strive to be vigilant in identifying hazards and managing the risks.
The big plus that is achieved with having a strong health and safety culture is that you have all the minds within the organisation tuned into managing health and safety at their respective level. This is so much more powerful than just a few people managing health and safety.
There are a number of mechanisms that can be used to positively influence health and safety culture. Many of these are applicable to businesses and organisations of all sizes. A number of these mechanisms are listed below.
A good health and safety management system is a living system which contains mechanisms such as SMART health and safety objectives and goals which are undersigned by a strong policy statement by senior management.
A positive culture starts at the top. Senior management such as the company directors must set out the SMART objectives and buy into them.
One objective that helps focus minds is the concept that "All employees should be able to return home in the same condition, or better, than when they arrived at work".
The provision of appropriate training and having a suitable training program is not just a legal requirement but it also positively influences the health and safety culture. Training raises awareness of safety and the implementation of a training program demonstrates management commitment.
Auditing of health and safety performance is also a legal requirement. Furthermore it can significantly influence culture by demonstrating that management is serious about health and safety.
Audits by independent auditors bring "a fresh pair of eyes" to review health and safety performance and often identify gaps or weaknesses in the management of health and safety within organisations.
A good audit system has a number of checks and balances which ensure that weaknesses in the system are identified and positive action is taken to eliminate them.
Monitoring of health and safety performance in the workplace is also required. Inspections give vital and regular feedback on the state of health and safety on an ongoing basis which can help identify hazards and risks as they arise and can assist with prompt resolution. The act of carrying this out on a regular basis reinforces the perception that management is serious about health and safety.
Safety Tours by senior management demonstrate to employees the commitment of management to their health and safety policy and can greatly influence the culture in a very positive way within an organisation. A Safety Tour program is about senior management visiting and communicating with individuals in their chain of command on health and safety on a regular basis.
The content of a Safety Tour has to be carefully determined and can help management understand the effect of their efforts and the issues faced by front line staff. The act of taking the time to talk to staff demonstrates the organisation's and its management's commitment to health and safety.
Behavioral Safety Initiatives generally use the concept of group reward and peer pressure to get employees to co-operate with each other to work towards positive health and safety goals. Care has to be taken to ensure the goals of an Behavioral Safety System are appropriate.
All organisations have health and safety hazards and risks which can cause them considerable damage just like the iceberg that lay in the path of the Titanic. All risks cannot be eliminated so it is important that the risks are managed. The thought that "it "could not happen to me" is illogical and ill considered and should be rejected outright.
Good management of health and safety within an organisation requires a positive culture starting at the top of the organisation . This depends upon all personnel having the correct beliefs and mindset. This should be engendered by a robust system and processes such as a suitable health and safety management system with the correct mechanisms in place.
These mechanisms will help to generate a positive culture and have appropriate checks and balances to ensure the organisation remains on course to avoid the icebergs and that the correct decisions are taken at the right time so avoiding preventable accidents.
The lessons from the sinking of the Titanic are clear and are relevant to modern businesses. Every organisation needs a strong and positive health and safety culture to protect their most important asset, their personnel.
It cannot be emphasised enough just how important it is to properly and fully implement a robust health and safety management system. A suitable system would include the mechanisms mentioned above and should comply with HS(G)65 the HSE's own guidance or OHSAS 18001 the international standard or similar. Both standards also have a process for continuing development and evolvement of the system so that it continues to improve over time. See also
The big key here is implementation. A good health and safety management system only works effectively if it is properly implemented. A manual, no matter how good, sitting on a shelf is worthless. It is the implementation of the arrangements within a health and safety management system that provide the benefits and that takes action, determination and persistence. Above all it requires the right mental attitude and beliefs and committment to drive it forward by senior management.
Dont let health and safety be your iceberg!
Take care and stay safe
OSHCR, CMIOSH, MIIRSM, NEBOSH Dipl, BEng, CEng, MICE, PEng, MIE(Aust)
Richard is the MD and founder of
Active Safety Associates
Health and Safety Consultants
Tel: +44 (0)20 8651 6601
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“Active Safety Associates have been Cadogan Building Services out-sourced health & safety consultants since the company was formed in 2006. They were recommended to me and I have always found Richard to be knowledgeable, courteous and always available to assist, even at short notice. The Health & Safety Management System he devised for the company is comprehensive and user-friendly and his on-going support invaluable. I would have no hesitation in recommending him to other prospective companies, no matter their size.”
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