The Ship’s Hardhat

I was the newbie on board. While ten years working on square-rigged sailing ships had taught me many things, it hadn’t taught me the finer points of working on a shorthanded coastal cargo ship. Despite that, as I dived out of the way of another lump of falling scrap steel as it crashed down from the grab, I was almost certain that what we were doing was a bad idea.

Painting a cargo hold during discharge of a steel scrap cargo

What we were doing was standing next to a wall of a steel scrap trying to paint the sides of the hold while lumps of steel fell from the spider grab working overhead. If you’ve never seen a spider grab, picture those arcade games where you put money in and control a moveable claw to pick up a toy.

Photo of claw arcade game by Robert Anasch on Unsplash

A spider grab is a big version of those claws. It’s attached to a crane, and it’s almost as effective as the little claw in the game when it comes to picking up piles of loose steel scrap. That meant that, in practice, big lumps of steel were falling around us as we painted.

After several hours of near-misses, I tentatively approached the chief mate (the second-in-command of the ship) and asked if he really thought this was a good idea. As he dipped his roller into the paint, he looked at me in disgust.

“If you’re that worried, I think the ship’s hardhat’s in the old man’s cabin. You could always ask to borrow it.”

Even with my minimal experience at the time, there were a few red flags that should have jumped out at me:

  1. The fact that there was only one hardhat on a ship with six crew;
  2. The fact that it was hidden; and
  3. The fact that no-one but me seemed to care.

Looking back, I think asking the captain if I could borrow that hardhat probably would have been a good idea. While it wouldn’t have saved my life if a train wheel landed on me, it might have increased the insurance payout to my family. More importantly, if I’d said something, it might have convinced the others with doubts to actually speak up as well. It’s surprising how many times a group of people are worrying in silence, scared to speak up in case they’re the only one.

I have no idea how we got through that job without someone being killed, but I often think about that experience when a comparatively inexperienced person comes to me with a concern. It’s easy to forget that newbies see things with fresh eyes. There are a lot of things that those of us who are worn down by years in the industry no longer see, no longer think about.

I’m sure that the chief mate and the captain of the ship knew that, on paper, we were all supposed to have hardhats, but they’d been chasing that requisition for months and the hardhats still hadn’t turned up. They knew that we should wait until the cargo was discharged before we started painting out the hatch, but they also knew that if we did that, we’d be up all night painting and we’d get in trouble for exceeding our safe working hours.

That was years ago, but not a lot has changed. Since then, I’ve been in the position of that chief mate more than once, trying to balance the commercial pressure to get the job done, the practical availability (or lack thereof) of the equipment to do the job safety, and the actual risk of doing the job. It wears everyone down. Every time we take a shortcut, take a risk, and no-one is injured, we become more complacent, and the risks start to feel normal.

If we do the “right” thing, if we refuse to do the job until it’s safe, refuse to work over our hours, refuse to start until we have the correct safety equipment, it costs the company money and makes it difficult for them to compete against the other companies who are willing to take shortcuts, to risk lives.

For the last few years, I’ve been working for a company with a good safety record. A few months ago, I was made redundant along with most of the crew on my ship.

As we were securing the gangway on departure from the final discharge port, I called a halt: the crew were taking shortcuts so that they could get out of the cold and get a few extra minutes in bed. I pointed out that there were three ways we could avoid redundancy: the charterer might change his mind; they could get fired for ignoring basic safety rules; or they could fall overboard, get knocked out on a lump of ice, and drown. Their choice. And broadly speaking, the basic parameters of that choice never really changes.

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