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When Safety Leadership Failed: Lessons Learned from Major Disasters

By Kurina Baksh
Published: January 8, 2016 | Last updated: August 31, 2020 07:27:29
Key Takeaways

When safety leadership fails, human lives hang in the balance.

Source: OlivierLeMoal/

Disasters are difficult to predict and each of them feels unique in some way. That's because there are only a few ways to truly work safely while there are countless ways for things to go wrong.

When things do go wrong, however, there are typically some common root causes, including a failure of leadership.

Safety goes beyond standards and regulations. It takes leadership to establish a strong safety culture, to encourage employees to adopt a safety mindset, and to secure buy-in instead of constantly struggling to get people to take safety seriously.


In this article, we'll look at some stark examples of what can go wrong with a lack of leadership. More importantly, we'll also highlight the lessons we can learn from these major disasters.

Case Study 1: The Saga of the Titanic

You at least know the bare bones of the story. The ocean liner that was declared unsinkable not only sank, but made its way to the ocean floor after it struck an iceberg on its very first voyage in 1912.

While there are various factors that contributed to the Titanic's unfortunate fate, human error is usually cited as the main reason for the disaster.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The tides brought more icebergs than usual along the ship's route. Nevertheless, the ship's captain, Edward J. Smith, received multiple warnings about ice fields in the North Atlantic - warnings he chose to ignore.

To make matters worse, the Titanic was sailing at full speed. While Smith would have been fully aware that these high speeds would bring additional risks, he was stubbornly determined to beat the sailing time of the Olympic, a rival ship in the fleet.

A few reckless decisions led to the deaths of 1,514 passengers and crew members, and a harrowing experience for the 710 survivors.

More than one hundred years later, the saga of the Titanic has taught us valuable safety leadership lessons:

  • Never make assumptions. Many of the decisions that led to the disaster were based on the false assurance that the ship could never sink. Unfortunately, this turned out to be more hype than a true and tested claim. Always verify and double check information before making critical safety decisions based on it.
  • Safety is a leader’s main priority. Captain Smith took safety for granted. He trusted that the ship would be safe instead of taking steps to ensure a safe voyage. Leaders, however, put safety first - after all, none of your other goals can be achieved if incidents or injuries stop you in your tracks.
  • Training is critical. One sad fact about the Titanic is that only 710 survived while there were enough lifeboats to carry up to 1,178 passengers to safety. Rather than filling those lifeboats to capacity, they were rushed into the water with plenty of room left on most of them. This was partly due to the crew never receiving training on how to use those lifeboats in the event of an emergency, resulting in them having to think on their feet in dire conditions - and making the wrong choice.
  • Plan for an emergency and provide all the equipment needed to get through one safely. Even if they were filled to capacity, the 20 lifeboats on the Titanic would still have left over 1,000 passengers stranded. The crew also didn't have access to searchlights, which made their rescue efforts more difficult.

(Learn about The Difference Between Safety Leadership and Safety Management)


Case Study 2: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

On April 20th, 2010, one of the worst industrial disasters in history took place in the Gulf of Mexico. On that day, a blowout at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig caused a fire that claimed the lives of 11 people and initiated an uncontrolled release of crude oil that flowed for 87 days.

It is estimated that 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, a disaster with a severe negative impact on the environment, as well as economic and political consequences.

Source: USCG

Bob Bea, a former consultant for BP (the company responsible for the operation of the Deepwater Horizon rig) acknowledged that the disaster was a classic failure of leadership, driven by a management culture that prioritized profitability.

Some key lessons we can learn from this event:

  • Take action. True leadership exists beyond job title and workplace. Ordinary people volunteered for clean up efforts following the oil spill. They recognize that an incident like this affects everyone and acted accordingly.
  • Take responsibility, be accountable. Accountability must start with the CEO. Instead of tackling the disaster head on, BP tried to spin its way out of the crisis. Needless to say, they failed and would have come out of this much better if they had simple owned up to their role in the disaster and did everything they could to remedy it.
  • Have a vision. It was the norm of BP’s organizational culture to ignore expert safety advice and sanction extreme risk taking. Without a vision for what a safe and efficient operation could look like, management could not see beyond the short term gains they were aiming for.

(Learn more in A Look at Spill Containment and Spill Prevention and Control Measures)

Case Study 3: The Costa Concordia Disaster

Unfortunately, the sinking of the Titanic was not the last disaster involving a luxury liner.

On January 13th, 2012, Italian luxury cruise ship Costa Concordia partially capsized off the coast of Italy, killing 32 passengers. The ship’s captain, Francesco Schettino, attempted a "sail past" maneuver without instruments along the treacherous rocky coastline. Consequently, the cruise ship hit a rock and sank.

Source: Soerfm

Some of the key safety leadership lessons learned from this disaster include:

  • Put your employees and customers first. The captain deserted the ship instead of assisting his crew members in securing the lives of his passengers. Furthermore, the cruise line instructed the captain to do as much "sail past" as possible, putting publicity before safety.
  • Maintain clear lines of communication. While the Costa Concordia was an Italian ship, it housed an international crew. The lack of a common language among them impeded communication when it mattered most. Moreover, passengers were told that it was an electrical failure and were not aware of the real situation until 45 minutes after its occurrence.
  • Provide proper training. The crew members were unprepared for an emergency evacuation. In addition, they did not know how to steer the lifeboats to shore.
  • Take compliance seriously. Reports indicated that the crew members failed to comply with the most basic international safety standards. Approximately 600 passengers did not receive their mandatory safety briefing, for instance.

Leadership, Safety Culture, and Catastrophe

Effective safety performance is built on the foundation of successful safety leadership. With the right commitment and perseverance to adopting a culture of safety, major disaster, such as those discussed above, can be prevented.


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Written by Kurina Baksh

Kurina Baksh is a Health, Safety and Environment Professional from Trinidad and Tobago. As a recent graduate in the field, she is trained to analyze and advise on a wide range of issues related to her area of expertise. Currently, she is an independent consultant who develops public outreach and education programmes for an international clientele. She strongly believes that increasing public outreach and education can promote hazard awareness and ultimately save lives.

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