South Korea: Fighting to prevent lives lost at sea

All stakeholders, including the government and private sector, are responsible for maritime safety.

For five years in a row, South Korea is seeing a rising number of human-caused maritime accidents, with experts now calling for the government to take more substantive action.  

According to the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries in South Korea, the total number of accidents, including physical, environmental damage, human injury and fatality, rose from 2,307 cases in 2016 to 3,156 cases in 2020. 

Every year, the number of cases increased by around 218 cases on average. The casualty also rose from 411 to 553 during the same period.

Experts say that the government has to show more effort in identifying the causes and preventing such accidents. The government, however, says that accidents can only be prevented when all stakeholders also cooperate with national policies.

Accidents for all seasons

The causes of maritime accidents are different every season.  For example, fog in spring; rogue wave and strong wind in winter and autumn; and a high number of sporting and leisure water activities in summer.

However, Lee Hye-jin, a logistics researcher at the Korea Maritime Institute, said that a majority of the accidents happened due to human error, not seasonal characteristics.

“Almost 90 percent of the causes of maritime accidents are operators’ unintended mistakes, not from natural factors or using old ships,” Lee stated in a report.

“Organizations such as the Korean Maritime Safety Tribunal, Korea Maritime and Port Administration, and Korea Maritime Institute are offering safety training programs. The government is also introducing preemptive measures to mitigate (human errors), but the number of cases has not decreased in the past five years.”

An official of the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, who prefer to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue, told Maritime Fairtrade that the government has been introducing safety guidelines and measures that correspond to each season.

“The government comes up with a new plan every year to mitigate (yearly irregularities),” the official said. “We have plans prepared for every season to prevent maritime accidents.”

Human errors are main cause of collisions

A 2017 study published in the Journal of the Korean Society of Marine Environment and Safety stated the following types of human errors that causes maritime accidents, especially ship collisions.

For stand-on vessels, which maintain their original course and speed in sailing while give-way vessels avoid them, the biggest cause of collisions (63.3 percent) was failing to avoid clashing with another vessel.

On the other hand, give-way vessels, which are responsible to find an alternative route to avoid stand-on vessels, the common causes were not monitoring the surveillance system properly (74.3 percent) and being inattentive to approaching sailboats (17.4 percent).

The study stated that such ineffective monitoring and other human errors often happened because crew members were doing other tasks rather than focusing on sailing.

Road to safety

Lee, from the Korea Maritime Institute, said that the government needs to carry out more effective, continuous, and regular training programs to eradicate such human errors in maritime accidents.

“Every industry operator’s sense of safety is the biggest requirement in preventing maritime accidents and having less damage from them.

“We should carry out continuous, regular training (on safety) for the industry operators. Also, the government should conduct stronger, periodical vessel audits and provide safety information based on in-depth analysis and prediction on accidents to ensure safety in maritime logistics and transportation. 

“This way, the government will be able to contribute to decreasing the number of maritime accidents.”

The Ocean and Fisheries Ministry official said that promoting a sense of safety is one of the biggest challenges and that this burden should not be only on the government’s shoulder.  It takes two hands to clap, therefore all industry stakeholders need to take responsibility for this important life-saving function.

“The government does implement stricter audits of sailboats, restrict access to certain dangerous areas, and investigate the accidents every year,” he told Maritime Fairtrade.

“But accidents still happen when operators don’t follow our safety guidelines. Ultimately, this is something that the operators have to take responsibility for, as safety and human lives are directly in their hands.

“We hope operators can realize how important this issue is and that they have to work together with the government to ensure maritime safety to save lives.”

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