Meaning making in accidents (Part 1): a true story

January 19, 2022



In this episode of embracing differences, we will listen to the story of a young seafarer John William Soria who suffered life-threatening injuries when he slipped and fell 8 meters deep into a ship’s steel tank and lost consciousness. John came very close to experiencing death in an accident that would change his life forever. Nearly 5 years after this accident, I met with John last week to understand what meaning he makes of this experience. Apart from his insights and reflections, you will discover in this podcast the power of learning by listening.

Further information

Podcast description

In March 2017, John William Soria, a young Filipino seafarer, suffered life-threatening injuries when he slipped and fell 8 meters deep into a ship’s steel tank and lost consciousness. John came very close to experiencing death in an accident that would change his life forever. Nearly 5 years after the accident, I interviewed John to know what meaning he made of this accident and what has he learnt from it. If you are interested to learn more about accident investigations, risk assessments and what it means to be a human being making decisions in risky operations, you will find listening to John’s personal story deeply uncomfortable but immensely insightful for learning.

Hello and welcome to another episode of embracing differences with your host Nippin Anand. To start with, a very happy new year. I hope you had a wonderful time with your family and friends, and you feel all excited to be back at work.

Now before I start, I want to say to the listeners that there is a full transcript of this episode available on our website www.novellus.solutions. If you want to read the full interview, it is possible to do that word for word.

So allow me to set the context for this discussion. I met John online during a casual conversation with five seafarers back in November last year. During our conversation, we were discussing the problem of internet onboard ships. I was eager to hear from these seafarers about their own experiences but then the conversation took a different direction when John mentioned that he met with an accident on a ship and wanted to share his experience with me. What he shared during this meeting was quite powerful, so I organised another session with John. In this episode of embracing differences, I am meeting John for the second time to listen to his story. I hope you will find this session meaningful.


Nippin Anand  00:03

Yes. So, John, tell me a little bit about yourself who you are.


John Soria  00:11

Okay, so I am, John William Soria, a Filipino seafarer we have been sailing for like five years now. And the very, very first time I sailed, I was on a container ship. So, my story of for being a seafarer is really like a normal one. Most of the Filipinos if you’d say, we’re not really that, you know, who aspire really to become one. And coming from a family who is also well, whose background also, I’ve got a lot of uncles who are seafarers. Also, my dad was, my dad was seafarer. This, they sail for like, maybe 20, 30 years, some of them were. Some of them are captains, some of them are chief engineers. That’s why they, I really have this strong background of seafaring. But when I was in secondary, when I was in high school, I really didn’t, you know, didn’t think about getting into seafaring. Because I know how it feels like to be a son of seafarer. I don’t want to be you know, away from the family, I don’t want to be away from my kids very, very soon, if I become a dad, because it’s not going to be easy. That is why I, I started to, I started to dream of becoming a lawyer. So when I was in secondary, I started, I really jumped on becoming a lawyer. So that’s why I took a programme, this accounting accounting programme, which is a like a prerequisite into taking law. But then things happen. We’ve got a family problem, which was that time, put me in the you know, I was really cornered by that problem. Could not any anymore think of anything aside from getting into seafaring. So that’s why I was forced by that … that circumstance, I would say, to become a seafarer. So I took that three years in school, one year for cadetship. That would take these four year course in our Philippine seafaring maritime structure. That’s it. And I’m very glad because during that time, when I was in college, I was able to take this exam for the certain company, and I got hired, or like, I got a placement for becoming deck cadet, after I would finish school, when I finished the three years of theoretical in school, the company called me they they let me have this four months training before putting me on sea, for this one year contract, as cadet. Yeah. And what else? So I just took the exam. So luckily, I passed that was yesterday, was very, was very difficult. Our percentage was just the passing rate was just very small. So out of like, 90 people are like 90 people who took the exam only nine passed. So that’s less than, I guess that’s 7%. Seven 8%. Thank you so much. So yeah, that’s That’s it. That’s it Nippin.


Nippin Anand  03:53

John, I hear what you say that you were cornered in one place. It’s a very strong word. Actually, I would like to know a little bit more. Why you felt cornered when you were?


John Soria  04:09

Yeah, I chose that word, because I guess that’s the most appropriate as I would say, because it was really my desire to become an accountant and to become a lawyer after afterwards. It’s, it’s like 10 years ago, I set that strong goal for myself that I would really become one I will really become a lawyer. But then everything happened when we found that my dad was having an affair with somebody else. To the point that he loved us that he didn’t go back to us. He he was also seafarer. He was awesome, by the way. And I guess that was eight, nine years ago. 2013. So yeah, something like that. So that was a time when I personally found out that he was having an affair with somebody, and it was like a torture in the family because months before I found out that he was doing that thing. We were we were like left hanging. Because as a family, we didn’t really think that he could do such thing. Me as the, the eldest of four, I would really say, I grew up with a family whose father is, you know, like, the best dad ever I would say. That’s why those months prior to knowing that he’s doing that, we didn’t really have the the suspicion that he was doing that thing. The moment he gave me the phone, I asked him for like, I told them that I got something from school, like, I guess that was like an achievement. Can you give me like a gift? So he gave me that phone? Where I was able to find and read that message sending that message to his mistress. And it broke me really? It broke my heart so much to the point that I wouldn’t I I don’t know that. I didn’t know that. That time how I would deal with that thing. The very first thing that came to my mind was my mom, for sure should not be able to deal to deal that thing to deal with with the with the effect of that thing. So I asked for my for my Auntie’s advice as to how would I be able to do it? So she said that she will help me talk with my mom slowly. So that she’ll be able as well to, to understand and digest things. And yeah, so my my auntie talked with my mom, slowly so a bit by bit. And, yeah, she cried a lot. For sure. Although I didn’t hear because I was, I was in Cebu, or houses in Bohol like, an island away. I didn’t hear but for sure. She cried a lot. To the point that after we knew that some information about the the thing that my dad was doing. So my mom lost, like 10 kilos, so that’s like 20 pounds just because of that ordeal that we’ve undergone. So that was the thing that made me I would say cornered, I guess Yeah. But right now, since I already finished maritime degree, and whenever I talk with somebody, especially why I talked with Yrhen and Yrhen also has this goal also, you know, achieving something, maybe I also, he also likes to become a lawyer. And he told me, it’s not too late for you to become one. You we can we can still both chase that dream. He said maybe I would maybe I wouldn’t. I don’t know yet. He said, but he’s close to getting that is close to chasing that becoming a lawyer Gee.


Nippin Anand  08:29

Wow, well, what can I say I, I did this job for a seafarer for 12 years a job that I didn’t like it. And if it inspires you at all, I 29 I took a PhD. After being a ship captain, I decided to leave because that was not something that I I was meant to do. And unlike you, although not in a situation like yours. It was it was 11 years of a job that I never thought I would I would survive even one day. But yeah, so if you genuinely believe you want to be a lawyer, you should you have to put all your energy and your heart into it. And I’m sure you will be and you’re doing great. I’m so pleased with seeing your aspirations and energy. John, tell me a little bit about your, your initial days at sea. How did you join? See how did you find the life at sea?


John Soria  09:34

Okay. Remember that that time when I told you, I was hired, I got the placement from this certain company. So they put us under this four month training in their company here in Manila. So I undertook that together with the other 24 people with the same batch as I was and we were sent To see at the same time, so that was 2016 last quarter. So I joined my very first vessel in 2016. October I was very lucky because I, I got onboard on the 22nd. My birthday was on 30th. So I spend why first birthday at sea. During my first contract base after I got there, my first weeks where I would say were held. Um, I could, well, I would say I’m really weak with regards to big waves and really easily getting seasick. So the trade route of the vessel was Asia. So we were trading Taiwan, Korea, going down to Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, going back up to Taiwan, and the cycle continues. So we’re only like a liner on those terminals or ports. So I joined in Taiwan and go into Korea. October. Waves in South China Sea are really big. But those South China Sea during Me han or North East monsoon winds or waves are really big. So if from coming from Malaysia going back to Taiwan, three days of hell, so like three days of throwing up to the point I would throw up green particles, I wouldn’t know what else I was throwing up. And the other thing that made it harder was the chief mate remember that that story I told you about him depriving people, especially me as a cadet. He wouldn’t. He wouldn’t see me as a person I would say he would like although we’re of the same race, same nationalities was also Filipino. But you will treat me as someone who’s really under every everybody else, even for the Internet consumption for you the usage, he would not let me in. Because he said I don’t deserve I don’t deserve one to be. And there was this one time when we were in Busan, South Korea. So we were alongside the new terminal there. The vessel was just like few few metres away from the so called seamans club, where I could somehow get use for this Wi Fi service, which was free in that place. I asked him after 15 hours straight duty in gangway, I asked them I am now done with a 15 hours duty can I go out and maybe take some time call calling family back in the Philippines just it’s already like three weeks? Three, two weeks. I didn’t even get any message or information from the house? He said no. He respond quickly. No, because why? I told them because I guess my job is finished. The 15 hours. It’s not easy. So I guess it’s somehow a reward for me as well. Since I don’t have any, since it’s my free time. He said I didn’t expect that he would tell me what do you like, would you like me to give you another job order so I just I just went silent and responded him with respect still I told him okay chief if that’s what you want I’m just gonna go back to my quarter and sleep and wait to my next duty I told them but as I went in my room I just cried because I really didn’t think or expect that he would do that that thing? That thing to not let me go outside what would. What’s that thing that’s gonna be taken from him if he would let me go out right?


John Soria  14:35

There’s nothing there’s no effort. That’s that’s just easy to say. Yes, I guess because everything’s already done. But I didn’t expect I just didn’t expect that’s why I cried. And just I just really missed the family back then. That was two weeks of not reaching out and yeah, So it October, November, December, January, so four months of having that same route of that South East route there, and the vessel was subjected to a, what do you call this overhauling something. So the charter ended and we were sent to Shanghai, China for this emergency overhauling of the the engine. So from, I guess, January last week, and the march 1 week, we were in the shipyard during those times when we were in the shipyard, there were also some rumors that we’ll be getting the next charter after six months. So they did the jobs in the shipyard slowly. That’s why it took like, almost two months. Or like one and a half months in China, in Shanghai shipyard. And in 2020, in February, last week, I guess that was 28th. Yeah, I guess that was 28th of February. I met that accident. So we were in shipyard. The thing that happened there was, I really didn’t get it at that time. Because we were only for, I guess, four or five people were left to be doing things on board. So the people who were left there was just chief mate, AB (Able-bodied seaman), myself, Chief Engineer and cook. For everything to be running, and for and so that somebody would be overseeing things that were being done on the ship, because we’re in shipyard. Captain and the rest of the crew were sent home because the company wanted to put the vessel on a skeleton, I don’t know, skeleton manning, whatever, because of that charter to be six months. Yeah, that’s the that’s the forecast from the from the owners. So having that five, five man team on deck, we’re only two AB and I being the cadet. So I was like, he was pointing this do the do this. And that and also chief mate was pointing do this and that. So on that very day of the accident. I would say I was I was really lucky. Prior to the days prior to that accident, I would really, since that’s February go in summer, so that’s okay. It’s like the weather’s getting hot. So I would normally put this chin strap of the helmet. But on that day, somebody I guess whispered on me that somebody told me Hey, can we put on the chin strap, something might happen later. So I put on the chin strap. And after after lunchtime, so we had lunch and after lunchtime chief mate told the deck guys to do something inside this anti-heeling tank. So a bunch of DNV GL surveyors they were checking the tanks and they found out that this certain tank they wanted to be be cleaned from be derusted and be cleaned. That’s why after lunch chief mate told me and also the AB that we’ll be doing after lunchtime that thing that the surveyors were telling about this anti-heeling tank. So my job that time was just to really bring a certain chemical down to that tank and the AB will be the one to do to do the job. I’m just gonna get this chemical from bosun store and hand it to AB. The chemical is the what they call this rust converter. He will just wipe it on the surface and chemical and chemical process happens that’s it. So it’s just really my job that


John Soria  19:37

so good thing. I got my helmet on with the light headlight. Not that someone dim light from the headlight. I would say it was my first time though, to be entering that kind of environment. That’s an enclosed space, I’m not supposed to be there. And I learned that after so I was supposed to be not going inside that tank. But what else could I could I do when we’re just only two and there was a guess nothing for me to say to Chief mate, given the given the attitude and the character of the chief mate, I wouldn’t say no. So I just really that my in my mind, I, I would just think that I need to have this job done. So I took the chemical with me from the bosun store, went down to the engine, bringing with me the chemical, going down this vertical ladder going inside this tank, I was just really, I was, I was even amazed. At first, I thought to myself, Oh, this is how it looks like. So I would only see some enclosed space during the CBT computer based you know trainings and some other stuff online. That was my first time to be seeing that dark muddy, um, smelly environment. So okay, with my headlight on or something like that. The place was not properly lit, I would say, the manhole there was no light that the light that I was only bringing was this headlight. And from that vertical ladder where, where I was standing where I was getting a glimpse of what was really inside. I could see from that point that AB was doing the thing doing the the the rusting, and, you know, getting his job done. So from there, things that was a tank and some manholes and manholes, I guess, two more manholes before I could get to AB. So I, I was making my way to AB. So I, I went inside this first manhole. And after I went inside, I didn’t realise that I was stepping on a lump of mud, which was beside the edge of another, beside the edge of that manhole. So as I went inside, I slipped. So I slipped because of that lump of mud that I stepped on, which was also on the edge of the manhole. And after that nothing else followed. I could only see I could remember I could only see darkness. I don’t know if I could see darkness. But there was nothing I could see that time. I could just feel my my feet wet and cold. I could just hear somebody else upstairs screaming, calling my name. I could just hear some static on the radio. And during that time, when I recalled what was happening, I could somehow like puzzle up bit by bit of information that I was I was upstairs like a moment ago. Why am I why am I now inside this dark environment? I don’t know where am I? Oh, that was those were the things that were running through my mind. And somebody else really was crying my name. And when I opened my eyes, I could see a beam of light I guess that was from from the flashlight of AB and third mate who was rushing down to get me downstairs and I was still processing things when they approached me I guess the the elapsed time was 10 minutes. That was that was from AB statement when when they asked him afterwards. I guess I waited for like 10 minutes down there. I was unconscious for those 10 minutes. AB was it was difficult for him to find a way down. because Well that’s anti-heeling tank and he was also not familiar with the place.


John Soria  24:37

So the moment AB and third mate got on my on my position where I was lying that they they assisted me since that was anti-heeling tank and there was still a water left right when you pump out everything from the ballast tank so I guess half of my body was submerged. And I was just like hanging on these metal frames down there. I was just like this and the water was already here. And I could feel half my body was cold and wet. So they assisted me up to the point I realised something was aching down there on my right foot. I told them something was something aching, it pains me when you when you will assist me in getting up. Can you just put me put me somewhere I could just maybe sit down. They touched my body, I could feel some pain. I even have some some bruises and open wound on my eye. So they touched my body. I guess they were looking for something maybe broken bones or what? I told him I told AB that I guess everything on the upper part are good. Can you check my foot because I’m really starting to you know, feel the pain. So left foot was everything it was okay, but on the right foot, the moment he touched I screamed very, very loudly. Because I felt like hell, the bone, the bone was really ripped and torn into pieces. That’s why the moment he touched it, it was really painful. So I told them, I guess I got broken bones just don’t touch it anymore. And I was already crying. I couldn’t, I couldn’t believe I was able to survive that, you know, with the things running through my mind, I could still not process why I was there with the broken bone I got down there. Everything happened in just like a glimpse, you know? In a short time. And so yeah, I needed to go through with it. So they, they had to bring me back on deck. What they did was, it was like a four hour operation. To just get me out from the anti-heeling tank back up to main deck because that was a smaller vessel, holes are very small. Also the doors are small going up. So what they did and also another thing was I could remember, since we were just on like a an emergency overhauling. Right, so I guess we were on a, we were alongside a very big tanker. Our vessel was just like 8000-9000 gross tonnage 120 metres long. So that’s, that’s just a very, very small vessel compared to I guess we were alongside a 300 metre vessel. So we’re like a bunker to the vessel. We were alongside we were not alongside the port, we were alongside the vessel. So the moment they put me on deck, they had to make a way again, or do some operation to bring me from main deck to the port. What they did was they took again, like a mobile crane near that big tanker on the port. And have me taken here. Good. So that’s how they did it. Ambulance and medical team were down there waiting for me to you know, get me to the hospital. And I guess you you’ve read as well the update of the story from my Facebook post. So it took me a few days to wait for the operation. Because there were a series of holidays in China that time. So I was again in hell for like eight days, because I was only put under this painkiller for those eight days, I was not operated yet. To the point that early in the morning two to three 4am, the effect of the painkiller would already subside and the pain would already start to I could already start to feel the pain.


John Soria  29:31

And that’s the that’s the alarm for me that time alarm to to wake me up that hey, you need to wake up, wait and be in hell again and wait until 8am for you to get your painkiller. Those were really hellish days for me. Until that day, I got there and one more thing one more thing. On the very first day I was on the hospital Agent came to me he was already able to speak with the with the doctor he told me the the dreadest thing I was able to, to hear of. He told me the condition of your foot was already severe. We could not anymore do to save it. I guess we’re just gonna amputate you. I thought he told me that and I heard that right from from him telling me right to my face. They’re going to just amputate my feet my foot because they could not anymore do to help me you know, fix whatever was broken down there. I was really shocked to the point I cried again. What why where could you not do anything? And then moment, I cried. So agent went back, went back out and maybe talk to the doctor and the moment he came back. He told me maybe there’s a way we can try. He told me but we’re going to wait for like a week because no surgeons available up until next week, he told me I said okay, I’m just gonna wait then. that is why I waited for like eight days and surgery they happened never in my life was like confined in a hospital. That was the very first time I was confined with IV injected on me. So, a lot of first times happened during that that surgery as well. And surgery surgery happened everything was done. So I waited for like three weeks after the surgery for the doctor to give me the clearance to fly. They didn’t give me a right away the clearance because I was still in pain and to make sure that the moment I fly everything is somewhat like not anymore, you know? Severe or


Nippin Anand  32:33

sorry, my internet connection dropped John was yes, so we were Yes. Tell me. Where did we stop?


John Soria  32:44

Um, where did we stop? I guess I was already in the hospital after the surgery. So


Nippin Anand  32:51

yes, you. I just wanted to I didn’t want to interrupt you at that time. But good. We took a small break. Can you tell us which hospital was it? Or where? Which country? Was it? Sorry.


John Soria  33:04

Shanghai. I was in Shanghai when it happened.


Nippin Anand  33:07

Oh, okay. So yeah, please continue. So you were you said you were 10 days in the hospital.


John Soria  33:13

Ya, it took me I guess two weeks after the surgery. So eight days before I got the surgery plus two more. Over two weeks, I guess of waiting. Post surgery was waiting to hospital before the doctor gave me the clearance to fly. So yeah, I guess that was a little less than a month in the hospital. To the point I was on the fifth floor of the hospital, I could see the branches of the trees, getting leaves. Because it was already like spring to summer. And the moment I got out from the hospital having my way to the airport was really happy to be able to see other people because I guess I was deprived to seeing other people for for that duration of time. I could only see my my nursing aide, the nurses, the doctors who were checking on me on a daily basis. Yeah, the moment I got out I was really really happy. And I was also happy knowing that my family was waiting for my arrival. They were they were here in Manila that time. The moment I saw my mom when we landed I couldn’t as well contain the happiness and the mixture of sadness because I saw her already crying I was on a wheelchair somebody was assisting me, an airport personal assistant me have in my way, you know, taken my way out from the airport in yeah everything well I could say I was still I’m still lucky you know having this second chance to live. I already I am taking this second life really and the the moment I you know, I survived from from that accident. A lot of things I learned really a lot of things out from it. Firstly, safety really maybe a lot of people would just take it for granted the moment they would see Safety First on wherever walls they would see on wherever walls onboard a ship, they would see it. A lot of people will just take it for granted. They wouldn’t take it seriously. But the moment they but the moment I I learned how powerful to know that statement is. I already I would really make sure that my my crewmate would also follow the safety protocols and procedures. I would tell them my my experience and the things I had undergone so that they would, you know, take heed on the advice that I’ve given them about safety, especially helmet helmet that really saved my life. If maybe I didn’t put on the chin strap the moment I did, maybe I’m not anymore here, for sure. Because I could imagine that was eight metres deep down, I fell. And I guess it wouldn’t be easy for somebody to survive that eight metre fall without any helmets on? For sure. That is why Yeah, safety really is. We should really not take it for granted. And next is your relationship with other people, especially onboard it could really affect whatever you’re doing and would a simple a simple advice of you know, or a simple time, a simple moment to take time talking with your subordinates, that’s already it would already mean a lot to them.


John Soria  38:13

I could say that because I told you first. First time I got on on a vessel it was really hard because of my because of my officer senior officers, though I I didn’t really tell them right away right on their face because there are also a lot of things I’m weighing in. I also don’t want to well, if you studied our culture you would take things seriously and personally. If I would if I would say negatively to you if you’re a Filipino officer he wouldn’t take it as an advice or friendly suggestion he would not take it positively. He said he would take it negatively well Filipinos do it. Even I myself sometimes I couldn’t get myself out from from it because I guess that was that’s already embedded in us although that’s really really wrong. I’m very I’m very fortunate I got this training, which was which was given by the company culture cultural differences and how to deal with people with certain cultures something like that. So that was like an eye opener for me as well. Yrhen was able to get that with with with me so because we were in the same batch. we’re able to, you know, as a Filipino, who is immersed in an environment or a lot of people are coming from different cultures. And if we want to succeed in this industry, in this kind of in this line of this line of work, we also must know, the cultural differences, how to deal with certain, you know, certain people with of course, how do able to lessen the or mitigate the, the conflict after? That’s it. So, yeah, going back to the story I learned, that’s the second thing I learned a little, or just a little time talking with your subordinate, that’s a, that’s really a great thing for them. And I could also say that since we are in a ship, in a, in an environment where, you know, we’re like, forced to sail on a vessel for like, we’re forced to stay there, maybe for two weeks, you know, we could only see horizon and the same face every day. We couldn’t do anything we just, you know, maintain, we have to maintain the good relationship with them. By for sure, talking with them? What else did I learn? Thirdly, whenever I would become, you know, a senior officer soon. I wouldn’t do the things that my previous senior officers did. Because I, Myself was I, I experienced, I experienced it firsthand, the effect. And I guess I experienced the worst effect if a certain senior officer would do those things that my, that I was able to experience with with with those senior officers that I’ve had. So yeah, I hope I could somehow influence as well other people on same generation as I am, to, to change it to change the old ways of the conventional seafarers. And to really take time, you know, to, to make sure that everything, every everything and every one is safe on board.


John Soria  42:59

I guess, I’m done. what else do you want to know?


Nippin Anand  43:03

No, it’s your story. What comes to mind, John, is that just one question, actually. What do you think. I mean, if we were to go back that situation. What do you think was the cause of this accident? Or the causes of this accident?


John Soria  43:31

I guess the first thing that would come to my mind if I will be asked that question, risk assessment. Risk assessment was really not done during that time, I would say. So the hazards were not known. The potential threats were not known. And the moment we were caught in that situation where somebody will already fell and broke a foot. Everybody was already panicking. They wouldn’t know what to do because we were not prepared, because risk assessment was not done. Maybe the chief officer did it on the paper, but not on the actual.


Nippin Anand  44:20

So you said risk assessment was not done. Tell me how is the risk assessment done today? On board your ships? How do you do risk assessment?


John Soria  44:32

Um, for normal operations, I would say normal operations, the things that we do daily, so we would just have a time because it’s done daily. But prior to that, we already had a a meeting about the certain tasks but if it’s already repeatedly done, then there’s No more, you know, daily meeting about how to or whatever. But if there is a certain job order that is really, really critical. Some senior officers I’ve had before, they would really make sure everybody is what do you call this? We would have a meeting about it, he would make sure that every everybody involved in that certain job order knows what they have to do. That’s how we do it now. If I would compare it with the, with the accident, I’ve got I can I could not remember chief mate or yeah, there was no meetings made? I didn’t know what to do the moment I would go inside. So I was just sent there for me. I was just sent there with me, no, no, you know, no background or no idea of what to meet down there. If maybe a meeting, or an assessment, risk assessment, and a toolbox meeting was just done. I guess I could have avoided meeting that accident.


Nippin Anand  46:31

So so so coming back to the question, John, helped me understand how is a toolbox talk and risk assessment done today on board your ship? How do you do it?


John Soria  46:45

Okay. So before, before we do that certain critical job, we would have a meeting in the ship’s office. So after the duty of chief made after eight o’clock, so he would go go down to the ship’s office, that guys are the deck team already waiting for him. So we will talk for example, that the critical job order would be to work in a loft. So we’ll be working aloft. So the parties involved bosun will be the one to you know, delegate, the task as to who will be who will be on the stage who will be up there, assisting. Last time, I was just an OS, so I was just assisting AB and Bosun will be on stage. And the way we the way we did the risk assessment and Toolbox meeting would be, there is a checklist. So we would be we would need to know every item on the checklist. And we would also be given the somehow the procedure. So what’s the first thing to do after that what we will do next? Until we would be able to completely do the job or the task. That’s how we do it now. Good thing because I’ve got great senior officers lately, and I’ve been learning a lot from them as well.


Nippin Anand  48:32

Anything else in the risk assessment that you do apart from that?


John Soria  48:37

So since primarily, that’s for the safety of everybody, right? We would also sign the form after everybody’s introduced to the things that we need to do. So we would sign the form. And after we complete the job, we would also like No, no, not anymore. Yeah, we will. I guess they’re still right. I mean, the company, really, really SMS procedures. I guess they’re there. There’s still a form after the job is done. You would sign again.


Nippin Anand  49:12

Yeah, great. I will stop the recording.


What did you make of this conversation? It’s been a week since I last spoke with John and I am thinking to myself, how comfortable he felt sharing his story even though this was only our second meeting. We resonated as we spoke despite that we are physically seven thousand miles apart from each other. And it is through this resonance that I came to know him as a person, and as a young man who parked his aspirations aside to provide for his family.


You may say granted that he was never interested in becoming a sailor, how does that explain his behaviour on the day of the accident? Does that mean he was disengaged from work? Should he be any less motivated because he never wanted to become a seafarer? After all he has signed a contract. Is that the cause of the accident I am offering?


Well, not really. As a start, I’m not even interested in the sequence of events that led to the accident. I’m more interested to know him as a person, a young boy whose dreams and self-esteem is shattered much before he enters the professional world. Doing so helps me empathize with him and no matter how much I disagree with his actions and behavior, deep down I start to search for patterns that would help me understand him, connect with him, and learn from him. There is no learning outside of relationship.


When we commit to learning, suspend our agendas, surrender control, listen to understand, and treat people as human beings with dignity and respect, we make a connection that goes far beyond the transaction of interrogating what went wrong on the day of the accident; what goes well on a day-to-day basis or Gemba walks. We understand the morality, ontology, and the ethics of those who we are investigating. And they, in turn, reciprocate by giving us access to their unconscious which is precisely the place from where we as human beings make all decisions. It is in this moment, we come to understand what it means to be a young Filipino seafarer when he or she is faced with difficult choices (or rather preferences). We appreciate what it even means to be a young Filipino as against an Indian or a British youngster in a global world. And it is through this empathetic approach and open-mindedness, that we gain access to the rich social and cultural context of the accident we are investigating.


So the next time when a ship runs aground because a ship captain was trying to oblige a hotel manager or another captain was helping his crew members connect with their families, we don’t pass moral judgments from our office desks. Instead, we make an attempt to understand the moral principles that guide the reasons and choices of human beings when faced with uncertainty. We don’t just look at the human factors in that unexpected situation; rather, we try to understand humans as social and cultural beings. Training then has a very different meaning. Training is no longer about discipline, punish and dehumanizing people but an opportunity to listen, learn, understand, build trust, seek collaboration, and influence practices that can help us achieve meaningful change.


I thought it was also very powerful listening to John about what he has learned from the accident. How interesting that someone who came so close to experiencing death still believes in the slogan of safety first. And when I attempted to understand his perspective about what ‘caused’ this accident, the first thing he could think of was ‘risk assessment’.


Notice how he visualizes the ritual of risk assessments in his own words. “A chief officer will go down and the deck team already waiting for him”. Do you notice the power embedded in this little snippet that he offers us? A risk assessment where, according to John, different parties meet up, not teams – can you imagine the aura of this space? Hierarchy, power, agendas, and competing interests in the name of risk assessments. And then, while all the work happens on deck, in tanks, on the shipside, pumprooms, the meetings take place in the office space and so it becomes a ritual that must be undertaken in a formal sense. This is not the meeting of the Minds, there is no mention of conversation, exchange, dissent, questions, briefings, reviews, learning, listening. Instead, the risk assessment is a ritual of power and control whose purpose is to allocate jobs, tell people what they should do and belittle them. And then there is the signing of a form to complete the ritual. How is this different from the day when John experienced an accident? What has really changed from that day onwards? Interesting why John still believes in risk assessments.


The thought about enclosed spaces so unfit for a human being to enter, let alone stay inside and work in those horrible conditions for an extended period, never occurs to John. A rescue effort that took four long hours to get him out of that claustrophobic space and transport him to the hospital does little to impact upon his thinking and reflection about the effectiveness of risk assessments. Caught up in a foreign land where the doctors came close to amputating his leg and where the hospital staff would leave a patient with a broken leg on his own for weeks to survive on painkillers because it’s national holidays, he continues to believe in the fallacy of risk assessments.


Why, despite so little control over his situation, John remains convinced that risk assessments and safety first will keep him safe? The chin strap on the helmet would have surely saved him in the moment, but what about the design of the space and the paradox of safety inspections that creates a situation like this in the first instance?


Why is it that meaning making of sufferings in the wake of a tragedy remains so deeply embedded in the discourse of personal responsibility and mindless bureaucracy that is so far away from practice? Why do we not encourage some serious two-way conversations in risk and safety that would bring meaningful change?


More on this story with some questions and reflections in the next episode of embracing differences but for now, please share this episode with others who you think will benefit from this story. And if you’re interested to learn from real life stories like this, don’t forget to subscribe to our podcasts embracing differences. I wish to remind the listeners that this and all other episodes of embracing differences are available on our website novellus.solutions with transcripts, further information, articles, forthcoming events and workshops.


During the next few months, I will be publishing a series of six episodes on just culture, accident investigations, and learning culture and planning a series of workshops and events. You can find all the details and learn more about our work by visiting novellus.solutions.


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Thank you for wanting to learn more than you knew yesterday. Have a wonderful day.