Safety Moment #56: Sinking Standards

Great Eastern steamship

This month is the 30 year anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster. And, as to be expected, many people have published articles, blogs and web pages to do with that event, and the lessons that it continues to teach us. But there is an earlier maritime event which probably had a greater impact in its day than did Piper Alpha in ours. And that event was the sinking of the Titanic. (The image at the head of this post is actually of the Great Eastern, for reasons we discuss below.)

That event has given rise to many stories, movies and even some proverbs.

  • Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
  • Until the moment she actually sinks, the Titanic is unsinkable. (Julia Hughes).
  • Seize the moment. Remember all those women on the 'Titanic' who waved off the dessert cart. (Erma Bombeck).

Just like Piper, and more than a century later, the event continues to teach us lessons to do with maritime and process safety.

But first — what happened?

The Sinking

Launched in the year 1912, the Titanic was the largest ship in the world when she started her ill-fated journey from Southampton, England to New York. This was her maiden voyage — she left Southampton on April 10th 1912. Four days later she was about 375 miles south of Newfoundland.

She hit an iceberg at 11:40 p.m. The berg scraped along the side of the ship, opening up five of the sixteen watertight compartments to the sea. At 2:20 a.m. she broke up and sank. Of the 2,224 passengers and crew on board, it is estimated that more than a 1,000 perished in the frigid sea.

Causes

The tragedy caused an outcry in both the United Kingdom and the United States. The subsequent investigations identified many deficiencies and flaws, such as,

  • The lifeboats on the ship could take only 1,178 people — half of the total complement.
  • The lifeboats were difficult to launch — yet some of them reached the sea with plenty of spare seats.
  • There was the lack of binoculars for the lookout.
  • Procedures for the use of the new invention, the wireless, during a emergencies were inadequate. (There was a ship nearby but the wireless operator was in bed, so he missed the Titanic’s SOS).
  • and so on.

But the real reason for the tragedy was that, over the years, the designers of these huge ships had gradually let their standards slip. Safety precautions were getting in the way of profitability.

The Great Eastern

Brander (1995) quotes from the book The Night Lives On by Walter Lord.

Walter Lord . . .compares the ships of Titanic's day to the first great liner, the "Great Eastern", built in 1858. She was designed by I.K. Brunel, England's most celebrated engineer, who got every feature he wanted. The Great Eastern was not the most profitable ship, but she was a triumph of safety. She had an entire inner hull two feet inside the outer. Inside that, the ship was divided by 15 transverse bulkheads, and one lengthwise into 32 compartments. Watertight lower decks further divided those.

The decades passed, and dozens, then hundreds of liners were built. Competitive pressures between some 11 lines were fierce.

"But the engineers did not have the last word for very long...the perfect ship was no longer the vessel that best expressed the art of the shipbuilder. It was the ship that made the most money."

"Passengers demanded attention; stewards could serve them more easily if doors were cut in the watertight bulkheads. A grand staircase required a spacious opening at every level, making a watertight deck impossible. ... Stokers could work more efficiently if longitudinal bulkheads were omitted... A double hull ate up valuable passenger & cargo space; a double bottom would be enough."

"One by one the safety precautions that marked the Great Eastern were chipped away in the interests of a more competitive ship. ... When the "unsinkable" Titanic was completed in 1912, she matched the Great Eastern in only one respect: she, too, had 15 transverse bulkheads."

"But even this was misleading. The Great Eastern's bulkheads were carried 30 feet above the waterline; the Titanic's, only 10 feet."

Regarding the Great Eastern he goes on to say,

By contrast, 50 years earlier on August 27, 1862, the Great Eastern had scraped on an uncharted rock off the coast of Long Island. It ripped a gash in her skin some 9 feet wide and 83 long, worse in some ways than the breach in the Titanic. However, the Great Eastern's inner hull was unbroken and the engine room remained dry. She not only floated, but limped into New York the next day under her own steam. Not a soul was hurt. 

To summarize:

  • The engineers and designers of the first, large trans-Atlantic steamship recognized the hazards and risks that they faced. So, they installed many safety features, such as full size, internal bulkheads.
  • Their precautions were successful. In spite of hitting the and ripping a bigger hole in the hull than that of the Titanic’s, the Great Eastern made it into New York uneventfully.
  • Steamships continued to be safe, so, under competitive pressures, management of the steamship companies slowly, but surely whittled away at the safety precautions.
  • The industry as a whole failed to properly adopt new technology (the wireless).
  • 50 years later the Titanic went to the bottom of the ocean.

SOLAS

There was at least one good result that came out of this tragedy: the development of SOLAS — the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea.

Titanic Newspaper Globe
The Start of SOLAS