Death at Sea – When No is The Only Right Answer

121030042324-bounty-uscg-horizontal-galleryThe Coast Guard has released its investigation of the sinking of the Tall Ship Bounty and resulting fatalities back in 2012.   If you are not familiar with the story, it is one of the most tragic marine accidents in recent history because it was so preventable.  The sailing ship, built for the movie, “Mutiny on the Bounty,” sunk in Hurricane Sandy 100 miles off the coast of North Carolina.   An inexperienced deckhand died and the captain, who has never been found, is presumed dead.

The Coast Guard has just released the investigative report.  It is gripping as any fictional sea story(thanks to attorney Dennis Bryant for covering it in his blog.)  The main finding of the report is that the Bounty should never have left the dock in the face of the hurricane.  The specific finding is a textbook description of a failure to assess risk:

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The Coast Guard also found that the owners categorized it as a recreational vessel and, by doing that, avoided many of the safety requirements of commercial vessels.

This is important for anyone involved in maritime, but there are lessons here for safety-related decisionmaking in every field.  The hardest call to make is “no.”    When we plan a project and assess the hazards, we hope that the result is to green light the project.   If there are risks, we develop controls that manage those risks at an acceptable level.  How often are we willing to just say no?  If you can remember a case where a project was shelved because the risks were too high, you probably remember it because those decisions are so rare.

The strange thing is that, in most cases, it takes more courage to make the decision to “stay at the dock” than to head into the face of a hurricane.   That courage has to start at the top within a company.

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