Workplace safety issues in South Korean ferry disaster


The capsized ferryToday is World Day for Safety and Health at Work. Large though its theme is, this year it stands under the shadow of the massive loss of life on Malaysia Airlines Flight 70 and on the Sewol ferry. They are massive monuments to the importance we give to safety and try to build in the workplace.

It is shown, too, in the anger and distress of the relatives of people who died in the disasters, when they believe, fairly or unfairly, that health and safety have not been duly respected.

It would be unfeeling and presumptuous to speculate on the causes of the ferry disaster. It is a time for grief and sympathy. But it may be helpful to enumerate the questions that have been asked, not to resolve them, but to see the panorama of factors on which health and safety depend.

Some of these questions concern the business that ran the ferry: the ethical qualities of its owners, the safety of its adaptation for the route between Incheon and Jeju, the procedures observed in stowing vehicles and other cargo in the hold, the priorities given to prompt departure and arrival over other concerns, and the training and clear allocation of responsibility to those crewing the ferry. These questions inevitably also touch the adequacy and implementation of regulation, inspection and compliance measures provided by the government.

Other questions concern the conduct of the ship during the crisis: the responsibility of the captain in dangerous waters, his responsibility to passengers in the event of danger, the allocation of responsibilities to the junior officers, the readiness of the crew for times of emergency, the responsibility of coastguards and other ships, and the clarity of communication on and from the ferry.

As with the MH370, many people have questioned the engagement with the families of passengers during the emergency, and whether they received adequate support and honest and up to date information.

These questions will surely be treated exhaustively in a full enquiry. But even when they are asked they disclose a pattern. In travel by plane or by ship, as in many other enterprises, there are two different sets of interests: the operational interests of those who provide the service, and the interests of those who benefit from the service. Companies ideally take both with complete seriousness, of course, but they stand in some tension.

The interests of the companies that provide travel and their officers are more immediate. They want flexibility: to be able to purchase ships quickly, adapt them for service economically and without delay, to earn a reputation for predictability in the times of arrival and departure, to cut costs of administration and compliance as far as possible, and to offer a relatively cheap but profitable service. All these interests are best served by reducing regulations as far as possible and by minimising the costs in terms of time and money of compliance.

The interests of passengers coincide at one level with those of the companies. Passengers want a cheap, reliable and competitive service. But they also have larger interests, shared of course with the companies. They want their health and safety to be guaranteed. This guarantee is for the longer term and looks not to what is statistically normal but to the exceptional case.

If it is to be given, it requires bodies that recognise new risks and devise better safeguards, and regulations that visualise the extraordinary threat as well as normal working conditions. Compliance with regulations will demand thorough training, close familiarity with procedures to be followed in the case of accident, coordination between different people and groups involved in ensuring safety, and caution even in the face of operational needs. These things are costly and tell against efficiency and flexibility.

There will always be tension between the flexibility that business demands and the regulation that the larger and long term interests of society demand.

Business will always call for less and more targeted regulation to adjust to new technologies and opportunities; the community will always want instant and sweeping regulation in the face of new disasters. The huge loss of life involved in crashes and capsizings illustrate what is at stake in having proper systems of regulation, research, investigation and compliance directed precisely at the extraordinary sets of events that cause injury. That is true of smaller workplaces as well as of ships and planes.

That is why we Australians should be vigilant when governments promise to be business friendly and to reduce supervision, regulation and the burden of compliance. Adaptation and simplification are commendable. But when supervisory boards and evaluation agencies are closed, particularly in matters concerned with the environment, the safety and health of our children in the face of the equivalent of the 50 year floods is likely to suffer. And the children who died on the Sewol give a face to those whom we might allow to be at risk.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, work safety, Korea, MH370



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Existing comments

The anger and distress of relatives who lose loved ones in disasters such as MH370 and the Sewol ferry is completely understandable - their loved ones have travelled as many millions do and have, to them, inexplicably lost their lives. It touches no one else so deeply. Unfortunately, even with the greatest compliance with safety issues, sometimes human error or extraordinary weather conditions cause havoc. Safety should never be sacrificed due to cost-cutting though - if higher ticket prices result, so be it.

Pam | 24 April 2014  

“All these interests are best served by reducing regulations as far as possible.” I believe that’s a crucial misunderstanding of how we operate in the market, Fr H. Let's ask ourselves, "What is the optimal level of safety?". There's no universal answer! Safety is a good among other goods. It’s not some ultimate determinant of action. Moreover, it’s not some homogenous, Platonic ideal. Individuals are forever trading off some forms of safety against others. So, an habitual push-bike rider might avoid a heart attack where a habitual Sherman tank driver might not, whereas the tank rider will survive a head-on with a mini minor that the bike rider won't. Which is "safer"? We can’t compare incommensurables. Likewise: suppose the Korean ferry passengers traded safety against cost, as everyone does on one level who uses a small car, or bike, rather than a tank. Who's to say the money the ferry travelers thereby save (on other trips, historical or expected) doesn't enable them to purchase superior safety in some other aspect of their lives? Or some other good they preferred over safety? And who will quibble with their mix of choices? The market is not about “reducing regulations” if that means anything other than “conforming to what consumers want.” If and to the extent that consumers want safety, entrepreneurs strive to deliver that, to the precise degree consumers desire within an overall mix. Again: who is to quibble with their choice? Should we ban mini minors because someone values a specific form of safety more than others do?

HH | 24 April 2014  

HH Hugh Henry there is a hierarchy of values with the value of human life being higher than the value of a free market. The safety of a human life is not simply one good among other goods. When I am driving I do not swerve to miss an animal if such a manoeuvre endangers people. As a society we are constantly making judgement calls. The rules around bicycle helmets are connected to universal health care. It is the same with un-roadworthy cars. People are free to make choices as to what they do but society, through its governance mechanisms, also has the right and responsibility to place some limitations on those choices. Hugh, I believe you start at the wrong end. If we begin with actual concrete cases we may find that our pristine theories are wanting. If we begin by examining what actually happens and then develop our theories in the light of such observation through a cycle of constant vigilance and re adjustment we come close to something that works. Set and forget philosophy is over. Complex issues are not solved by ideology; they are only solved by being, attentive, intelligent, reasonable and responsible.

John Francis Collins | 29 April 2014  

As one European airline executive once said "airline safety is expensive until you consider the cost of failure" (the cost of a crash) - financial costs and repetitional damage meaning loss of income. These two sad events both involved modes of transport but have nothing else in common, as far as we know. They do raise many common issues but the scope of 'regulation and the burden of compliance' are not necessarily first and foremost. I suggest human values and the culture of those responsible comes first. Following the global financial crisis, there have been great efforts to reform regulation but we still see regulatory opportunities being exploited for profit and not the common good. It may seem a big leap but human dignity coupled with personal responsibility and integrity are probably the most important factors in transport safety, and by extension in all human activity.

Peter | 29 April 2014  

JFC, thanks. 1. I distinguish: the safety for those who are affected by my act vs safety as a good amongst other goods I weigh up concerning my own act. I concede: the safety of others on which my act impacts is paramount – it’s entailed by respect for the right to life and property of all, very much a market (and more fundamentally, Catholic/natural law) ethic. I deny: that, assuming my act is safe for others, safety is the paramount good I must always choose over all other goods for myself. If that were the case, a host of activities and occupations would be on that ground intrinsically evil: soldier, fireman, bomb disposal expert, astronaut, test pilot, diver, mountain/rock climber, sky diver, hang glider, vulcanologist, stunt man, footballer, round-the-world solo sailor, street-corner Christian evangelist in downtown Riyadh, etc. 2. There is an opposition implied (IMO) in Fr H’s post between “the market” and “safety”, as if business would really prefer it if there were no legal compulsion to cater for safety concerns, so that it could get on with making a profit, and to hell with safety. I dispute this. Business wants a profit, and gets it by satisfying the customer. But the customer wants safety, among other things. Accordingly business strives to deliver safety, in the proportion the consumer wants. If Fr H were correct (as I understand him on this), why are there are huge swathes of the market economy where government has not regulated, dedicated nevertheless to producing products and services reflecting consumer demands for safety? (Check out Bunnings, Chemists, Auto shops, etc) It is thus patently not true that business is against safety. The reality is that the market values safety no less - or more - than it values women’s fashion, or cars. Consumers (eg, I myself) sometimes rank safety for themselves less than other values (eg economy, speed, aesthetics). The fact that the market caters for their subjective valuation is no argument against the market, since it is not intrinsically evil, and may even be prudent, for them to make this trade-off. 3. We also shouldn’t confuse scepticism about government regulations with hostility to the good allegedly being protected by same. Jimmy Carter deregulated the airline industry and abolished the C.A.B.. Against all “expert” warnings, airline accidents FELL with deregulation. 4. Is the glass 99% full or 1% empty? Compared to human history up to 100 years ago, ferry/shipwreck tragedies today are a drop in the ocean (so to speak). Reason: Draconian government edicts against getting shipwrecked? Nup. Entrepreneurs delivering safer boat technology via the market? Correct.

HH | 30 April 2014  

Like others, my knowledge of the two transport disasters is limited to what the media have provided. In both cases, but more so in the missing MH370 flight, another seeming similarity is the slowness with which it occurs to people that a true danger to human life is happening or has just happened. Millions of people around the world catch planes and boats every day and almost all arrive safely at their destination. Perhaps because of this, no one really is ready for a trip to go badly wrong. The consequence may be a greater loss of life than might otherwise have happened, as time is lost waiting for officials to "get" the reality that a plane has crashed, a boat is sinking, etc. Fr Hamilton is right to comment on the quality and amount of emergency training crews receive, and also that received by personnel such as air traffic controllers. Much as it's not good to panic at every non-routine movement by a transport medium, on the other hand a few false alarms might keep more people alive because intervention will be sooner rather than later. The loss of life is tragic, and the families and friends deserve our deepest sympathy as they grieve, knowing that had authorities caught on to the possible magnitude of the emergency sooner, at least some of their loved ones might have lived.

Carmel Ross | 02 May 2014  

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