The Importance Of Marine Safety Data

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January 7, 2012

– By Rear Admiral James Watson, USCG

Rear Admiral James Watson. Photo: USCG

Marine safety and environmental stewardship are closely associated when you look closely at the Coast Guard’s marine investigation data for a period of time, say 10 years. In fact, between 2001 and 2010 the Coast Guard’s data from almost 21,000 vessel oil spills shows that 97.3% of the spill volume is attributed to just 5.2% of the incidents which involved a marine casualty (an incident resulting in a death or severe injury, loss of vessel or major damage).  Non-casualty spills occur much more frequently, but average much less in volume.  Non-casualty incidents involve a human error such as inattention during fueling, or a material failure such as a hull crack or hose failure without a catastrophic event.

Interestingly, marine casualties can usually be traced back to one of the same broad causal factors as the non-casualty incidents – human error and material failure.  Those 5% of the human error and material failures that released 97% of the pollution and all of the deaths and ship losses happened at really inopportune moments – such as when another ship or a bridge is in the way, or a spark ignites the cargo vapors, or the weather is particularly bad.

The Coast Guard does not collect near-miss incident data (as in commercial aviation), but it’s very likely that such data would correlate with marine casualty data, non-casualty spill data, and routine inspection discrepancies.

Analyzing marine safety data, including oil spill and inspection data, is essential for prioritizing prevention initiatives. Good government and good business involves investing time and money where the most benefits will result. Even though a very small percentage of incidents are catastrophic, it pays to analyze the non-casualties and near misses, because the odds are that sooner or later recurring human errors and material failures will happen at just the wrong time and the result will be much worse than a minor oil spill or inspection discrepancy.

This post was written by Rear Admiral James Watson, USCG (Ret) and originally appeared at Admiral Watson was sworn in as the Director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement on December 1, 2011. He is responsible for promoting safety, protecting the environment and conserving resources through the vigorous regulatory oversight and enforcement of offshore operations on the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf.

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