Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner


August 15th, 2012 · 9 Comments

In the midst of some maritime-related research, my mental record needle stopped upon reading this counterintuitive claim:

Statistics indicate that lifeboats have cost more lives during training drills than they saved during actual rescue situations. The hook release system, which attaches the boats to the wire and winch that lowers them into the water, is the cause of about 80% of these accidents.

Really? So our species would actually be slightly in the plus column if we just left shipwreck victims to their own devices? It sounds too brutal to be true, but there is credible evidence to support the contention here:

In 2001 the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) studied (PDF) the UK’s merchant fleet accident reports for ten years and it showed that alongside entering confined spaces and falling overboard, lifeboat practice was the most dangerous area of operation. Sixteen per cent of fatalities happen during lifeboat drill – one death in eight – a chilling statistic.

MAIB concluded that there were major three factors in lifeboat training accidents which in the studied decade killed 12 seafarers and injured a further 87. Ironically over the same period they did not record one single instance where someone was saved by a lifeboat.

The report emphasized deficiencies in lifeboat design, maintenance and training. Their findings were confined to UK waters and therefore only pointed towards the global problem, but they were backed up by the Norwegian and Australian authorities with their separate investigations coming to similar conclusions. The Norwegians estimate that globally there are about 214,000 drills a year causing 1,000 accidents and as many as half causing fatalities.

So let’s say that puts us somewhere around 500 fatalities per year due to lifeboat accidents. How does that compare to how many lives the small vessels save annually? That’s tougher to calculate, for there do not seem to be any international statistics. On top of that, we do need to question whether lifeboats launched from shore to rescue shipwreck victims are equivalent to those stored on the ships themselves. But there is one data point from the United Kingdom here, and it definitely hints at the fact that the claims of lifeboats’ overall lethality could hold water.

None of this may be good reason to jettison lifeboats from ships. But perhaps the maritime industry should follow Allen Iverson’s fabled lead and disdain the practice of practice.


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9 Comments so far ↓

  • scottstev

    Let’s not discount, impossible as it is to quantify, the psychological benefits. Knowing that there are lifeboats and that a drill will take place, has to decrease anxiety and panic.

    Similarly, I bet the extraordinary lengths Medevac will go to save wounded soldiers increases their performance. Knowing and seeing an organization pull out all the stops to assist an individual has to lead to some peace of mind.

  • Jordan

    @scottstev There was a study in WWII showing that that knowledge has a measurable impact on the perceived pain of wounds taken by soldiers: http://www.radiolab.org/2007/may/17/pinpointing-the-placebo-effect/

  • Scottstev

    Jordan, I proprose we team up. I’ll pull the wild theories directly out of my ass, you handle the grunt-work of empirically proving them. Deal?

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Scottstev: I would definitely read your jointly written blog. Or, better yet, watch your Discovery Channel show.

  • Gramsci

    In addition to a feeling of safety, I would suggest there’s a feeling of control at issue. A lifeboat practice accident, while horrific, still lies within the context of preparation and planning. An iceberg sending you to an arctic grave is about Nature, or Fate, doing something to you, perhaps in a sense to humanity itself. Isn’t that sense of control what keeps gun owners from caring that statistically they’re more likely to be harmed by accidental discharge than by not blowing away an intruder?

    It’s funny MK brings up Iverson, since sports represents an inverse corollary to this moral intuition. The most psychologically difficult injuries for fans are those in the preseason, the offseason, or practice. There is the impulsive reaction “This didn’t have to happen. It wasn’t even during an actual game. Why did we risk it?” It’s almost as if the team is more responsible for its own player’s injury. During “real” games, on the other hand, injuries, while grieved, are still ultimately accepted as part of the game. Here again, even though both kinds of injuries are accidents (just like lifeboat accidents and wrecks), there is the sense that the context of practice and preparation change their moral status.

  • scottstev

    @Brendan, as long as we have Jordan doing the heavy lifting, I’m in.

    @Gramsci, great point; that’s exactly how drivers feel safer being in control despite being place at a MUCH greater risk in a car than other modes of transportation.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Gramsci: Excellent points. The control issue also probably explains why fear of flying is commonplace, even though your odds of dying while aloft are infinitesimal compared to those of dying while driving to the store for milk.

  • Jordan

    Just let me know when the Discovery Channel people coming knocking. My memory is at your disposal.

  • Captain Button

    I read something once about how some people who are very afraid of flying on airliners were taught to fly small planes themselves and did fine at it because of the control issue.