22 Feb 2024
by Charlie Bartlett

Letting losses be lessons: Marine Accident Investigation Branch interview

Rob Loder, Principal Inspector of Marine Accidents at the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB), tells us why seafarer safety has always been a passion.

Today’s maritime regulations came from thousands of years of cumulative seafaring experience, longer than any other transport sector.

But shipping is still one of the most dangerous industries in which to be employed. Battling the elements 24 hours a day, seafarers are vulnerable to wind and waves whether they are on-duty or not. Arduous schedules brought on by lean manning and cost-cutting make for challenging sleep schedules and long work hours.

Read: Fatigue in the maritime industry - an issue worth losing sleep over

MAIB was born after the 1987 capsizing of the Herald of Free Enterprise ro-ro (roll-on roll-off) ferry, which claimed almost 200 lives.

“The UK maritime community needed an independent accident investigation authority,” explained Rob Loder, principal inspector and IMarEST Member.

“One of the findings of the subsequent [Herald] enquiry was that UK government agencies were, in effect, investigating themselves, and were unable to be objective. The air branch [AAIB] had existed since 1915, three years after the Titanic sank. So, it took another 80 years for us to realise we needed a marine branch!”

A self-described ‘career seafarer’, Loder told Marine Professional that he always had a passion for safety. “Traditionally, seafarers are proud, professional people. They’re really invested in doing a good job. For my part, I took a lot of pride in my ships. I always wanted to leave them in a better state than I found them.

“In the early days I tried to fix everything, to be a superhero. But there is never nothing to do on a ship: you are battling the elements, corrosion, seawater, wind. It’s a difficult job. After a while I realised how unrealistic that was, that running around like a mad thing is not the way to do it.”

Loder turned to other avenues through which to achieve these aims, joining MAIB in 2020. “Now I'm a principal inspector, so I run a team of inspectors,” he said.

Crew resource management

One thing stands out in MAIB reports: the stipulation that its investigations, unlike many, are not an exercise in blame. This, Loder stated, is essential from a pragmatic standpoint and a moral one.

“The cornerstone of this thinking is, ‘How can you learn about an accident if you blame someone?’ They will try to protect themselves; they will guard against the truth. So, we do not prosecute, we do not place blame, and our reports cannot be used for this purpose. We don't interview under caution, for example. We say that what we're discussing is protected.”

The enforcement of hierarchies, in general, is neither an effective way of running a ship safely, nor a good framework for analysis in the aftermath of an accident, Loder said.

Modern thinking over crew resource management (CRM) aims to cultivate an environment in which junior crewmembers are encouraged to come forward if they notice a problem or mistake.

This follows on the vessel itself, but the same culture assists investigators in the aftermath of an accident. “In the old days it was: ‘Fred screwed up’. Well, maybe he did, but why? What was his mental state? How many hours had he worked? How was he trained? Otherwise, you are just blaming the guy, the guy gets fired, and the problem still exists.

“One of the great things about the job is that we have licence to really think about things and say: ‘Maybe the fact that Fred had just worked 60 hours continuously has got something to do with Fred’s performance,’” Loder expanded.

Rob Loder; credit: Rob Loder

Image: Rob Loder; credit: Rob Loder

Safety 2.0

An advantage of CRM is that it unlocks new potential avenues of analysis. For example, ‘Near misses are pure gold, because you have all the experience of what might have been, without the pain.’

But top-down thinking is liable to stand in the way of this, and still frequently does. “[Analysis] only works if people are open to discussing [near-misses] and avoid the temptation to just go down the pub and forget about it,” said Loder.

This analysis of an accident which almost occurred is much harder to do, Loder states, and the opportunities for doing so are few and far between. So-called ‘Safety 2.0’ distinguishes when things are going well and attempts to quantify exactly why; but like any form of research, it takes funding, and time, and so is less prevalent.

“How do you get the money to analyse stuff that is going well? We don’t generally care about what is going well, just tell us when it is going badly.

“But looking at good procedure and successful behaviour can inform how you need to change where things are not going so well,” Loder expressed.

New horizons

Loder expects that the onset of several new technologies at once, along with the adoption of a plethora of new fuels, will pose a challenge, particularly for an industry which draws up so much of its safety regulations reactively.

“Lithium-ion fires, for example, are really fascinating. Some of the temperatures that involved and the direction of venting – it is absolutely terrifying.

We see it in the automotive space, you know, where a battery gets punctured. Well, we carry a lot of cars at sea, both in long haul and short haul traffic. So there, that is not even a propulsion problem, it’s a cargo problem,” he said.

But for Loder, the application of existing knowledge to an ever-changing industry is as exciting as it is frightening. “It's great, I love it. In each case, there is always something to learn. Every day you are thinking, oh my word, this is coming down the line.

“Once you go looking, there is always something to see.”

Main image: Ferry in port of Zeebrugge, the location of the 1987 Herald of Free Enterprise disaster; credit: Shutterstock