Workplace safety issues in South Korean ferry disaster

The World Day for Safety and Health at Work was celebrated on April 28, 2014.

May 08, 2014

By Andrew Hamilton
The World Day for Safety and Health at Work was celebrated on April 28, 2014. Large though its theme is, this year it stands under the shadow of the massive loss of life on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 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.

Source: Eureka Street

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