Learning Lab Denmark - INCUBEus

F. Oil Tankers

Oil tanker accidents have enormous public costs in terms of long-term pollution. Most victims are low status, poorly organised seamen, and third-party victims of, say, an oilspill are random and anonymous. Furthermore, the effects are often delayed. These factors lead to widespread negligence of the dangers of the industry. One therefore has to asks the vital question: is it right to let highly toxic chemicals be transported so cheaply and dangerously?

Several characteristics serve to classify the oil tanker industry as a risk inducing system. Unlike the airplane industry, the oil tanker industry does not have an efficient system to monitor the traffic at sea. It is up to the individual captains to avoid collisions. Therefore, most of the accidents at sea occur due to human error.

Several factors increase the possibility of human error. Captain alone has the responsibility - in contrast to airplanes where the second pilot has more to say. Also, a higher degree of risk acceptance belongs to the traditions of the sea, increasing the irresponsible behaviour of the crew and captain. This was the case when Exxon Valdez struck a reef when the captain was drunk (see card #F3).

Captains often work 48 continuous hours and communication failures on the bridge and between ships are frequent, since the crews do not share the same native language.

Secondly, maneuvring is difficult and slow. It takes more than twenty minutes to stop a 250,000 ton tanker, and most tankers only have one screw and one boiler, which makes maneuvring very hard. The bridge is placed too high over the water to see small fishing boats and reefs, so that the collision often happens before the captain has had time to react.

The system must be designed so that it does not inspire risky behaviour. For example there is evidence that improved brake design in trucks only makes truck drivers to go even faster, thus accomplishing with the efficiency demands set by the company. The role of safety devices is the same for ship captains; safety has seemingly increased, but the amount of accidents remains constant.

Further reading:
Perrow, C. (1984/1999). Normal Accidents. Living with High-Risk Technologies, pp. 170-231, Princeton University Press.

An ITOPF report on the frequency, range and location of oilspills:

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Nine Technologies

A. Air Transport
B. Buildings
C. Land Transport
D. Marine Transport
E. Bridges and Dams
F. Oil Tankers
G. Chemical Industry
H. Medical Industry
I. Nuclear Industry

Nine Theories

Quantitative Risk Assessment
Decision Analysis
Cost-benefit Analysis
Normal Accident Theory
High Reliability Organisations
Risk communication
Arena Theory
Cultural Theory

Five Categories

Hazard (0-1000)
Range (km2)
Fear Factor (0-10)
Media Effect (0-100)