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We Can Predict the Future

The tragedy of the “Titan” submersible, on June 28 of this year, has captured the public’s imagination. The Titan, with five people aboard, imploded as it descended to the wreckage of the Titanic which sank in 1912, killing more than 1,500 of the 2,240 passengers and crew. The eerie coincidence of one fatal incident leading to another suggests to some a curse. But the initial postmortem investigation points instead toward the Titan being a very predictable disaster in the making.

We are, as rational beings, much better at predicting the future than we are sometimes willing to admit. The Titan event is nothing more than another of countless reminders that we do not always tell ourselves a correct story about safety. And we are not just referring to what might be considered a coincidence surrounding the Titanic. As mentioned above, the unsinkable Titanic shockingly was sent to the bottom of the ocean in 1912 by an iceberg. However, in 1898 (fourteen years before the Titanic disaster) Morgan Robertson wrote a novel about a fabulous Atlantic Ocean liner that went down one cold April night in an identical scenario.

The Titanic displaced 66,000 tons of water. Robertson’s fictional ocean liner displaced 70,000 tons. The real ship was 882 feet long; the fictional ship was 800. Both ships could carry up to 3,000 people, both could make up to 24 knots, and both carried only a fraction of the lifeboats needed if something bad happened --- such as a collision with an iceberg. And, both ships were described as “unsinkable.” What did Robertson call his ship? The “Titan.”

By the late 19th century, we had vast experience with the sea. Every ship builder could tell you to “never, ever” discount the following:

One, the sea is unforgiving. In other words, nature daily reminds us how unimpressed it is with what we humans design and build.

Two, the suggestion that a ship (any ship) is unsinkable is an incorrect story on a cosmic scale!

What Robertson wrote some 14 years before the Titanic sank was not some eerie prophesy, but a likely outcome based on observable facts. The sinking of both the Titan submersible and the Titanic, could have easily been foreseen by anyone who cared to make an objective assessment. But in both instances, the builder and operator ignored “known facts” which set the stage for a disaster. Unfortunately, emotional excitement, along with hubris, discounted safety at every turn. The results were catastrophic!

It has been our experience that well-meaning (and some not-so-well-meaning) leaders often do the same thing when it comes to workplace safety. We know, and have known for decades, that a catastrophic safety incident is always preceded by a tremendous amount of predictive information. And, that that information comes in the form of an ever-escalating number of near misses. These near misses range from dozens of “first-aids” in a short span of time, all the way up to a fatality narrowly averted.

The “formula” for disaster is well known. In fact, if we asked an experienced operator, “If you were to be seriously injured or killed doing this job, how would it happen?”, they could give us a detailed account of it. An account as accurate as in Robertson’s novel. But when these questions are avoided in favor of what we prefer to see, influenced by emotional goals and hubris, we become blind to the obvious. The result? We are unable to predict the future. When safe work practices are ignored, safety protocols disregarded, and management refuses to see the reckless behavior of a team member thought to be indispensable; There will be a major, perhaps catastrophic (but entirely predictable) safety incident in that organizations’ future!

Any other story will, in time, prove to be an incorrect story --- an incorrect story as misguided as the incorrect story the builders of the submersible Titan and the Titanic told themselves.

At SafePath Solutions, we can provide your organization with the expertise to do consistently what is already in your power to do: Predict the future.

Ken Chapman & Tony Orlowski

Co-Authors of Safety Beyond the Numbers


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