Story of Fire and Ice – What did we learn from RMS Titanic in root cause analysis?

17 July 2018

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Story of Fire and Ice – What did we learn from RMS Titanic in root cause analysis?

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Hindsight is everything in some cases, allowing ample time for root cause analysis and learning from mistakes.

The sinking of RMS Titanic happened over century ago on April 15, 1912 resulting in the deaths of more than 1,500 people, making it one of the most tragic maritime disasters in history.

Having the most advanced technology of the time and being an immense size, the vessel had been marketed as being “Unsinkable”. The key question still surrounds the cause of the sinking - was it really the iceberg that caused this tragic event?

Re-examining the evidence

The cause of the tragic event has long been assumed to be the iceberg that the ship crashed into. However, evidence of a there being a fire in the ship’s hull has recently arose. Experts have discovered black marks that were 30 feet long, close to where the iceberg struck the ship, on the front right-hand side. There are theories that the fire might have happened before the ship even left Belfast. 

This fire caused significant damage to the structure of the ship, and weakness due to the temperature levels. Other theories suggest that the coal bunker fire that was kept secret to avoid delay on maiden voyage and as correction, burning coal was fed or transferred to ship’s engine. 

Management’s decision to meet strict deadlines and cut corners also played a huge role, as they could not afford any further delays after the Titanic’s sister ship "Olympic" also had an incident when it was damaged by British cruiser HMS Hawke off the Isle of Wight.

Another crucial factor from the investigation was the ship’s speed. This was due to two underlying reasons – cost cutting and feeding the coal that was loaded to all bunkers for the six-day journey to New York. Slowing the engine down and picking up speed again would consume more coal, thus increasing the risk of being stranded halfway through the journey. The crew would have no choice, as any fire on board would have continued to be continuously fed by this burning coal within the engines.

Titanic was designed to stay afloat even with four watertight compartments flooded and it is also the reason why there were only a number of lifeboats onboard. There was no “what if” factors accounted for. History was written and out of 2,224 passengers and crew that fateful night, only 710 escaped in lifeboats and later rescued by the RMS Carpathia. 

Lessons learned from tragedy

More recent events, such as the Costa Concordia off the coast of Italy - which resulted in 32 fatalities - have highlighted the need for overcapacity within emergency egress methods, such as lifeboats. Safe disembarkation of modern passenger vessels should also be able to be achieved in less than ten minutes. 

This is supported by the International Maritime Organization’s SOLAS (International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea) regulations that are enforced to enhance safety and seaworthiness. These standards were first written in 1914, in response to the Titanic disaster. 

After a committee inquiry which lasted more than a month, they concluded that the sinking was an unavoidable accident and caused by excessive speed – frequently termed by some as “an act of god”.  Although the unofficial evidence of the continuous coal bunker fire was made known during the enquiry, but little of this light was shone on this potential causation and the report made no mention of the fire.

Applying a root cause analysis

One question to consider might be- have the committee made a thorough and effective Root Cause Analysis? Have they really accounted for “the iceberg of risks and factors” that sets in motion the entire cause-and-effect chain causing the problem? 

The importance of Root Cause Analysis (RCA) is paramount. Having a focus on correction of root causes has the goal of minimising the impact of the issue or entirely preventing problem recurrence – we see this modelled in risk management methods, such as the bow-tie.

At present, we conduct RCA as a reactive and post-event method of identifying causes, with the aims of revealing problems and solving them. There are a number of lessons learned from other such tragedies that has helped to make the industry a safer place (such as the Lord Cullen report into the Piper Alpha offshore disaster in 1988).

Insights from RCA make it potentially useful as a pre-emptive method as it can be used to forecast or predict probable events even before they occur. 

Despite the fact that there was no way of truly predicting that this disaster would strike, RCA played a vital role in helping us fully understand what has happened and help put measures in place to try to ensure it wouldn’t happen again.

Ideagen provide comprehensive risk management software for a number of different industries and organisations. Find out more about how our solutions can support a comprehensive root cause analysis.

Written by

Alexander Pavlović

Alex produces targeted content to help Ideagen’s readers and customers navigate the complex world of quality, governance, risk and compliance.

Alex has worked with brands such as BT, Sodexo and Unilever and is passionate about helping businesses build a cohesive, collaborative culture of quality.

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