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Safety and regulations

From Titanic to Costa Concordia…

By Fritz Pinnock, PhD and Ibrahim Ajagunna, PhD

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Early in the 20th century (April 1912) the world’s most infamous maritime tragedy, involving the RMS Titanic, occurred in the Atlantic Ocean. The tragedy took 1,513 lives. While this tragedy became the main focus of attention, little was said about the precursor, when the Titanic’s massive propeller sucked a small ship into her water as she left harbour, causing a near collision before she had even left British waters. 

Since the 1912 tragedy, the maritime industry has endeavoured to improve safety for passengers, cargo, seafarers and ships. It would be an understatement to say that shipping and maritime transport is today far safer than in the era of the Titanic. Notwithstanding the advances made in maritime transport safety, the recent disasters involving the Costa Concordia and Rabaul Queen demonstrate that there are still significant challenges.

As pointed out in Lloyd’s Register, no one separate development can be singled out for the progress made in maritime transport safety. It is further pointed out that a safer shipping environment is the culmination of a number of initiatives, researches, regulations, and innovations. Among the most important as pointed out by Lloyd’s Register are: 


These have increased significantly over the years. Today many new ships are dwarfing the Titanic in comparison. The largest modern containerships, such as Maersk’s new Triple-E class, pose challenges for insurers owing to their sheer scale and value. While this is the case, other ships are pushing the design envelope, breaking new ground in terms of design challenges, leading to concerns about structural integrity.


Experts have argued that modern ship construction techniques are a far cry from methods employed during the Titanic era, in which ships were generally pieced together by teams of riveters, and skilled men were employed to build vessels in relatively small dockyards. 

By contrast, modern shipbuilding uses technological innovations such as welding, computer-aided design, and prefabrication that underpin contemporary construction.

In the Titanic’s era, Europe was the centre of shipbuilding and a major source of employment. At the turn of the century, shipyards consisted of moulding areas, ironworks, platers’ sheds, joiners and cabinet-makers’ shops, blacksmiths, plumbers, French polishers, shipbuilding berths and fitting-out docks. Much of what was built and finished was created on site. One hundred years after the Titanic, more cost-conscious shipyards in Asia, specifically in Japan, South Korea and China, have taken centre stage. In 2010, for example, China and the Republic of Korea together built more than 72 per cent of the ships constructed in deadweight tonnage terms.

According to experts, just as the hub of shipbuilding has changed, so too have shipbuilding techniques. Much of what is done at a shipyard today can be categorised as assembly rather than construction. Today, new ships arrive at dry docks in prefabricated sections to be welded together. A shipbuilder is likely to engage in the ‘assembly’ of a number of ships consecutively. This shift to prefabrication, coupled with the innovation of welding – which improved the quality of construction beyond that possible with traditional riveting – has made a significant contribution to vessel safety.


Despite the strong passenger safety record of the cruise industry, notwithstanding the Costa Concordia tragedy, the modern trend towards ultra-large cruise ships, such as Oasis of the Seas, carrying over 6,000 passengers, poses new challenges, especially with evacuation and rescue in remote places. However, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has introduced regulations addressing such risks as proactive risk management with improved fire safety systems and a focus on the need for such vessels to be their ‘own best lifeboat’ so that, in the event of a casualty, persons can stay safely on board as the ship proceeds to port.


With increased cost pressure, many shipowners look to source crews from emerging economies because of lower wage demands. Despite IMO attention through international standards, training regimes and assessment are not consistent and may lead to variations in crew and officer competence. Over the past 100 years, however, training has moved from being localised and unregulated to a global footing and is now subject to close international scrutiny. The Standards of Training Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers Convention (STCW) in 1978 established international benchmarks in this area and has since been enforced by the IMO through the publishing of its ‘White List’ of countries which comply with these standards. 

Herald of Free Enterprise

Safety management systems have also driven a growing safety culture, in part arising from the failures of the previous piecemeal approach highlighted in the aftermath of the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster in 1987. Spurred by this accident, the International Safety Management Code (ISM Code), adopted by the IMO in 1993, has become more widely accepted and institutionalised in the industry.

Over the past 100 years, education and training in the maritime sector has moved from being a localised and relatively unregulated area to one subject to international scrutiny and with common baseline standards. Today, those considering a career at sea can choose from a staggering array of training options at various levels around the world.

International training standards

In the era of the Titanic, training was basically a national affair. There were no agreed international training standards. During this time, traditional maritime nations developed their own training schemes and requirements. Most, if not all, combined an element of apprenticeship with formal training and examination. At the time the Titanic sank, little had changed in this structure, except that a model form of indenture had been issued by the Board of Trade that included a requirement for Masters to teach apprentices the principles of seamanship, navigation and business on board.

Today, national systems are developed to ensure that seafarers are competent to go to sea and to safely navigate modern vessels, or to run and maintain their engines. Increasingly, these systems combined a requirement for underpinning education, experience at sea and examination. In the 1970s and 1980s, for example, with changes in the structure and regulation of the industry came changes in seafarer education and training. The greatest of these were driven by the introduction of the STCW Convention in 1978.

Future challenges to labour force 

The shipping industry is constantly looking at ways to further improve its safety record; and key in meeting that aim is determining future threats to the industry. To that end, risk assessment specialists, academics and industry commentators all agree that the shrinking supply of a skilled workforce, both at sea and onshore, is a major risk factor for the industry. Of particular concern is the move to source workers from emergent labour supply countries, the concern being that these nations may not have the necessary expertise or infrastructure to adequately train competent seafarers for a career in the maritime industry.

While the IMO has identified this problem and has attempted to address it by introducing standards for the training and certification of seafarers, there is evidence that it is insufficiently able to enforce and monitor such standards. Today, different standards of training are being compounded internationally by different methods and standards of seafarer assessment. This has produced an international system of certification whereby one certificate almost certainly does not carry the same meaning as one issued by a different flag state. The overriding fear is that such variations in standards could give rise to variations in seafarer competence, which may in turn lead to poor navigational understanding and limited competence with regard to shipboard maintenance and emergency response.

Training more generally is considered a key challenge for the future. Kevin Whelan, UK Marine Claims Manager at AGCS, believes that training is a problem on two grounds: 

Firstly, is there enough training available; and secondly, is it of the right standard?

Attracting the right calibre of person seems to be a real challenge. It is a perennial problem and there is little sign of improvement, unless the maritime industry itself can somehow make a career at sea more attractive. Some shipowners are already offering higher salaries to attract the right staff, but with shipowners today operating to the slenderest margin, any investment in training is a drain on the bottom line.

Crewing levels in a competitive industry continue to pose risks, despite the greatly improved efficiency of modern vessels, and may compromise margins of safety. Some commentators regard minimum crewing levels as too low and point out that they do not allow for (a) the inevitable extra tasks that 24-hour operations require; and (b) ‘human factor’ risks, such as fatigue, which are a significant cause of accidents.


Languages have been cited as potential risks, given the dependence on English as the ‘language of the seas’. With increasingly multinational crews, however, concern has been raised about communication in an emergency, or even misunderstandings in routine operations.


The maritime industry is now highly regulated, with a large number of organisations responsible for various facets of safety. However, it is the primary body, the IMO, formed in 1948, as a United Nations agency, which has driven much international regulation.

Prior to the IMO’s formation, the first SOLAS convention was driven by the loss of the Titanic, and on being adopted by its international signatories in 1914, formed a landmark treaty on marine safety. Subsequent revisions, combined with other key IMO conventions such as the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREG) and the International Convention on Loadlines, have further tightened safety rules. Such regulations have not simply reduced the risk of accidents; they have also addressed the challenges of responding to an accident with, for example, the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (1999). 

The industry itself has also played an active part in self-regulating. For example, oil tanker owners have set higher standards since environmental disasters such as the Exxon Valdez by tightening risk management procedures and establishing vetting systems, forcing others to adopt similar safety standards. With a complex regulatory environment, coordination of such regulations needs to be improved.

Despite an alignment of objectives, individual enforcement bodies do not always coordinate actions, nor is it easy to enforce responsibility in the event of an incident. 

Key milestones in maritime safety since 1912

SOLAS Convention sets international standards for maritime safety. International Ice Patrol begins aerial monitoring of icebergs

Echo sounding applied on board to monitor depth of water

International Convention on Load Lines addresses loading and stability issues

Welding begins to replace riveting, later followed by prefabrication, thus enhancing quality of ship construction. LORAN (Long Range Navigation) radio system allows accurate position finding up to 900 miles offshore

Decca position fixing allows accurate position finding up to 400 miles offshore

IMO established 

Computer aided design (CAD) revolutionises ship design. Widespread use of VHF (very high frequency) radio improves ship-to-ship and ship-to shore communication

Radar becomes mandatory under 1960 SOLAS Convention.

Introduction of first satellite-based positioning system for merchant ships, Transit, giving regular position fixes on transit of a satellite

Automatic Radar Plotting Aid (ARPA) introduced (mandatory 1989), replacing manual plotting of movements

COLREG Convention establishes ‘rules of the road’ for shipping

International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) addresses marine pollution risk

STCW Convention establishes basic training and certification requirements

International Safety Management (ISM Code) adopted by IMO, establishing standards for safe management and operation of ships

Global positioning system (GPS) fully operational, allowing accurate satellite-based position finding

Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) establishes protocols for ships in distress and rescue scenarios and introduces mandatory distress communication equipment in vessels

IMO adopts amendments to SOLAS making voyage data recorders (VDRs) or the ‘black box’ of navigational bridge mandatory in new ships

Automatic identification system (AIS) for vessel identification and tracking reduces collision risk. ISPS Code enhances security in ports

Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS) navigation system mandatory, providing continuous position and navigational  information.