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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 can happen regardless of the industry. This is due to the high inherent risks associated with some job tasks undertaken. However, there are also some common root causes, which are responsible for disaster events, including failed leadership. Safety professionals believe that leadership is a crucial factor in establishing a safety culture; leadership significantly influences safety, which in turn influences an organization’s willingness to adopt a culture of safety. Therefore, it may be argued that management’s commitment to safety leadership may positively impact safety performance. But what happens if management fails to commit to safety? The case studies below highlight the consequences and, most importantly, the lessons learned.

Case Study 1. The Saga of the Titanic

The ‘unsinkable’ ship sunk when it struck an iceberg on April 14th, 1912. Human error has been cited as the main reason the Titanic set sail on such a disastrous path, which ultimately resulted in the deaths of 1,514 passengers and crew members. The climate and tides were responsible for the presence of more icebergs than usual along the ship’s route. The Titanic’s captain, Edward J. Smith, received multiple warnings about ice fields in the North Atlantic, but unfortunately they went unheeded. To add to this situation, the Titanic was sailing at full speed in an area known to contain ice, as its captain’s main concern was beating the sailing time of the Olympic, the Titanic’s older sibling in the fleet. Then tragedy struck. More than one hundred years later, the saga of the Titanic has taught us valuable safety leadership lessons:

  • Never make assumptions. Many affiliated with the Titanic, including captain Smith, assumed that the ship could never sink.
  • Safety is always the leader’s main priority. Captain Smith took many safety issues and precautions for granted. Not only did he ignore multiple iceberg warnings from his crew, he also ignored safety concerns by pushing the ship to its limit on its first sail.
  • Provide proper training. The crew members were never trained on how to properly use lifeboats in the event of an emergency.
  • Provide adequate tools and protection. Only 20 lifeboats were available and they were not being filled to capacity. In addition, crew members were not equipped with searchlights.

Case Study 2. Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

Known as one of the worst industrial disasters in history, the BP Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill claimed the lives of 11 people on April 20th, 2010. In the aftermath of the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, a seafloor oil gusher (an uncontrolled release of crude oil or natural gas) flowed for approximately 87 days. It was estimated that 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled out into the Gulf of Mexico, which resulted in severe negative environmental, health, economical and political consequences. Former BP consultant, Bob Bea, acknowledged the disaster as a classic failure of leadership and management driven by a culture where ‘every dollar counts’. Key lessons learned were focused on the following themes:

  • Lead safety. True leadership exists beyond job title and workplace. Ordinary people volunteered to clean up the environment because they recognized how important it was to the livelihood of the locals affected. Had BP executives and elected leaders followed their example, more progress might have been made with respect to dealing with the disaster’s negative impacts.
  • 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.
  • Have a strategy/vision. It was the norm of BP’s organizational culture to ignore expert safety advice, sanction extreme risk taking, as well as overlook warnings about safety. It was this flawed culture that caused the company to respond to the disaster in less than a timely manner. It is a leader’s job to create a vision of safety and, thus, guide their organization to achieve that vision.

Case Study 3. Costa Concordia Disaster

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’ manoeuvre without instruments along the treacherous rocky coastline. Consequently, the cruise ship hit a rock and sank. This disaster shows how a combination of human error and pure arrogance can result in tragedy. 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. In the event of an emergency, safety should be the leader’s number one priority—not personal or professional reputation. Furthermore, the cruise line instructed the captain to do as much ‘sail past’ as possible, putting publicity before safety.
  • Maintain an open, honest line of communication. Most of the crew were employees of varying nationality, therefore, not everyone spoke Italian. This lack of common language impeded communication at the time it mattered most. (To find out more about overcoming language barriers in the workplace, check out: 5 Steps to Creating a Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Workplace.) 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.
  • Lack of compliance. 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.

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. So, do not let yourself or your company become another statistic. To find out what you can do to become an effective and efficient safety leader, check out: Leading Health and Safety at Work.


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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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