With recent reports of three crew members and the captain facing murder charges over the South Korean ferry disaster, the importance of all workers abiding by safety regulations has been highlighted in a most tragic manner. As BBC News reported, the Sewol ferry capsized and sank on its journey to Jewol last month, after being allowed to leave the port carrying in excess of 2000 tonnes of cargo – three times greater than the ship’s safety survey permits. 284 passengers have been confirmed dead and search efforts continue to attempt to recover the 20 missing, while 172 passengers and all 15 crew members survived. Eleven of these crew members have been charged with negligence, as they apparently escaped the sinking ship without fulfilling their obligation to look after passengers’ safety. CNN reported that life safety jackets and life vessels were available on the ship, however the prosecutor found that the crew did not instruct the hundreds of passengers on-board on their use.

While the inaction of the indicted crew and captain have been labelled as “akin to murder” by the South Korean president, the question of why government regulators allowed this heavily overloaded ship to leave the port remains. While health, safety and maritime laws exist, they were apparently not followed in this case.

The disaster demonstrates the importance of risk assurance, and establishing systems for monitoring compliance against standards.  There can be many laws, rules and standards to operate safely but without good systems to monitor and assure these systems, lives can be lost.  This is particularly pertinent with critical safety controls such as maximum weight loads, safety briefings, and emergency preparedness and testing.

All organisations should have a thorough knowledge of their ‘critical safety controls’ and ensure that systems are in place to regularly test and check their integrity.