Creating workplaces where we all watch out for each other

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Safety Leadership – OceanGate Submarine Tragedy – Innovation Versus Safety

By now most everyone has heard of the Titan submarine developed and operated by OceanGate, as part of the emerging adventure tourism industry. The appeal of this vessel was its ability to navigate very close to underwater wreckage/objects with viewports which allowed passengers to look outside the craft. The Titan was specifically designed with the purpose of traveling to and viewing the remnants of the iconic Titanic which sunk on its maiden voyage from England to New York in 1912. As such the Titan weighed about half as much as other deep diving subs, allowing for greater maneuverability while enabling the craft to get very close. This design was innovative and experimental. Forging its way into a new era of commercial access to the deep seas. It may have been the intense drive to rapidly grow the adventure tourism industry through ground breaking innovations, which were at times in conflict with established safety protocols, at the very root of what is now accepted as the implosion of the vessel on its 5th voyage down to the Titanic. So what were some of the signs of the impending tragedy?

The Whistleblower’s Concerns

OceanGate employee David Lochridge was fired in 2018 after he expressed concern about the submersible’s safety. Lochridge alleged he had raised concerns about the safety of the Titan with OceanGate and advised the company to conduct more testing of the vessel’s hull. Lochridge said he had disagreed with his employer about the best way to test the safety of the sub and that he objected to OceanGate’s decision to perform dives without “non-destructive testing to prove its integrity.” Mr. Lochridge reported learning that the viewport that lets passengers see outside the craft was only certified to work in depths of up to 1,300 meters versus 4000 meters depth the Titan would travel to view the Titanic wreckage. According to court filings Mr. Lochridge alleged he was fired after refusing to approve a manned testing voyage without first completely the non-destructive testing for which he was advocating.

OceanGate subsequently sued Lochbridge stating he violated company confidentiality policies by sharing information outside of the company. Lockbridge responded by suing for wrongful termination and eventually the two parties reached a settlement.

Neglected Risk Management

According to Will Kohnen, the chair of the Marine Technology Society’s Submarine Committee in an interview with NPR’s Morning Addition “Most of the companies in this industry that are building submersibles and deep submersibles follow a fairly well-established framework of certification and verification and oversight, through classification societies,” he said. “And that was at the root of OceanGate’s project, is that they were going to go solo, going without that type of official oversight, and that brought a lot of concerns.”

One concerned expressed to OceanGate was its claims that the submersible would meet or exceed the safety standards of a risk assessment company known as DNV, even though the company had no plans to have the craft formally certified by the agency.

In an unsigned 2019 blog post titled “Why Isn’t Titan Classed?,” states “Bringing an outside entity up to speed on every innovation before it is put into real-world testing is anathema to rapid innovation,”

In a Smithsonian magazine in a profile published in 2019, Mr. Rush said “There hasn’t been an injury in the commercial sub industry in over 35 years… It’s obscenely safe because they have all these regulations. But it also hasn’t innovated or grown — because they have all these regulations.”

Safety Protocols Under Scrutiny

The Passenger Vessel Safety Act of 1993, which regulates submersibles that carry passengers and requires that they be registered with the Coast Guard, did not apply to the Titan because it does not fly an American flag or operate in American waters. Beacuase the vessel was launched in international waters, OceanGate was able to work around most regulatory bodies.

OceanGate CEO responded to concerns regarding lack of independent safety review that certification industry standards were stifling innovation. Instead insisting that new alternative safety systems, although unproven, were superior to the industry accepted standards. The company had recently celebrated a patent for its acoustic system meant to monitor the vessel’s carbon-fiber hull (now suspected to be at the root of the implosion).

In a 2020 Reddit Q&A, OceanGate CEO stated “We can detect any anomaly well before we reach a critical pressure. We know of no other sub that is so well instrumented.” Yet again relying on new technology to justify averting accepted safety testing and certification protocols.

CEO Rush also stated the industry accepted classification assures design and construction adhere to standards but does nothing to “weed out subpar vessel operators” and the company claimed the vast majority of submarine related incidents were “operator error”.

Safety Planning to Drive Innovation

Considering the outcome of the Titan’s most recent voyage, we are now questioning how existing safety protocols, which were bypassed for the sake of innovation, could have actually proved to support and enhance adventure tourism versus the setback this new industry now faces. This is a similar dilemma faced by workers and leaders across all industries every day. We are all under the constant pressures to meet schedules, goals, earnings etc. and often make short-sided decisions on how much time to invest in safety up front. This incident may prove to be a stark example of how comprehensive safety planning may actually be the quickest way to the finish line, while also reinforcing the importance of outside certification/assessment to ensure objectivity and ongoing self-scrutiny.

McCaren Compliance offers a full range of health and safety training and consulting services and can be that outside voice to help keep your company objective when evaluating and consisting applying your own safety systems. Our latest Safety Teams offerings are completely customizable and may be exactly what you need to plug any leaks. Call, email or chat with us online to find out more.