Situating meaning in accidents: a seafarer’s story

John W Soria

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In March 2017, a young Filipino seafarer, John William Soria, suffered life-threatening injuries when he slipped and fell eight meters deep into a ship’s steel tank, lost consciousness and came close to experiencing death in an accident that would change his life forever. Five years later, I interviewed him to understand what meaning he makes of this experience? Through his personal story, I explore how the risk and compliance industry situates meaning in sufferings and what we can learn about ourselves from those meanings.

A young man with dreams


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Like many youngsters aspiring to become knowledge workers, John wanted to be a lawyer. But during his days at high school, he found out that his father, who was also a seafarer, was having an affair outside his marriage. As the eldest of four siblings, John felt that he was “cornered” when his father decided to leave the family to start a new relationship. In a country where social security and welfare is a foreign concept, John had to sacrifice his dreams and find ways to survive and feed his family. Seafaring was his only option, and although he never liked the profession, he was forced to take up a job at sea.

Initial days at sea

As it happened, the first few days were not easy for John. He joined a ship that was trading in South China sea and shuttling between ports in Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, and Malaysia. Although working with his own countrymen, which should give comfort to a lot of new recruits at sea, John soon learned that his immediate boss, the chief officer on the ship, was not empathetic to him. A physically challenging environment at sea also became socially isolating and mentally exhausting.

At times, John would work 15 hours a day without break and when in port, he was not even allowed a quick visit to the seaman’s club to make a phone call to his mum. But this was only the beginning of bigger challenges lying ahead for John.


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The accident

Nearly four months onboard, the charter ended, and the ship proceeded to docks in Shanghai, China for some repair work. Slowly, the rumors spread that the ship will be out of service and manning levels were reduced. A ship of 20-25 crew was now down-manned to 5 persons – chief officer, 2 able-bodied seamen, one deck cadet (John) and a cook. On the day of the accident, John recalled one of his mates whispered into his ear to wear the chin strap on his helmet, something he had ignored because of the arrival of summertime in South China sea. According to John, he was alive today mainly because of that chin strap.

Later during the day, two safety inspectors boarded the ship with the intention to inspect anti-heeling tanks in the engine space. As the cadet, John was asked by his chief officer to bring rust solvent chemicals to the tank and hand it to the able-bodied seaman who was working inside the space. Although he had never been inside an enclosed space, given his relationship with the chief officer, he could not muster the courage to say no. John took the chemical from the store and with a headlight on his helmet he started entering the tank space. The site of a dark, claustrophobic steel tank filled with dirt and muck took him by surprise. In his own words, he describes:

“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.”

Descending the vertical ladder inside the tank with chemicals in his hand, his foot landed on a lump of mud. Surrounded with darkness and confusion, he misjudged the mud to be solid tank surface, plummeted eight meters down and landed on a steel plate. From that moment, he says:

“… 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 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 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 elapsed time was ten minutes … I was unconscious for those ten 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.”

The rescue effort

A team of two inexperienced shipmates came to his rescue. At this time, John was hanging on metal frames and when they tried to straighten him up, he discovered that his right leg had broken bones in several places. He cried and screamed in pain and asked his shipmates to put him back on the tank space. The entire rescue operation took four long hours to transport him from this awkward tank space to the jetty where an ambulance was waiting to escort him to the hospital. It did not help that his own ship, a 120 meters long feeder ship, was tied alongside a mother ship and so the rescue operation took much longer than expected. Eventually he arrived at the hospital where he would receive medical attention.

The hospital treatment

The hospital treatment was not straightforward either. On the first day of arrival, the doctor examined his wounds and decided that his right leg needed to be amputated. He broke down into tears and pleaded to the ship’s agent if the medical team would reconsider their options and decision. The Chinese ship agent went back to the doctors, and he somehow convinced the doctors that they “at least give it a try”. The doctors agreed to re-examine his condition, but since it was national holidays in China, John was kept on wait for another 8 days before someone would attend to his medical emergency. “Those were really hellish days for me” he said.

Finally, his surgery was successfully completed, and he was given the clearance to be flown home eight days after. He was so thrilled to be back home and meet his family.


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Safety first

Towards the end of our conversation, John paused for a moment and he said:

“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 onboard a ship, a lot of people will just take it for granted.”

Risk assessment


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When I asked him what he thought was the cause of the accident, he replied:

“I guess the first thing that would come to my mind if I will be asked that question is 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.”

As a follow up, I asked:

“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?”

To this he responds:

“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 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 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 accident, 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. 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.

I probed him one more time:

“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 added:

“Okay. So 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 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 aloft. 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 on the stage, who will be up there, assisting. Last time, I was just an OS [ordinary seaman], so I was just assisting AB and Bosun will be on stage. And the way we did the risk assessment and toolbox meeting would be, there is a checklist. So we would need to know every item on the checklist. And we would also be given 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.”

I wrapped up the discussion with one final question:

“Is there anything else in the risk assessment that you do apart from that?”

John concluded by saying:

“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.”


On the day I wrote this paper, it was three days since we spoke. All this while, I was thinking to myself how comfortable John felt sharing his story even though this was only our second meeting. We resonated as we spoke despite that we were 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?

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 when his father abandoned his family and put him in a vulnerable situation both socially and emotionally. Sitting thousands of miles away in an online meeting he tells me about his father’s affair even without me asking. Understanding him as a person 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. All learning takes place in relationships.

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, learning teams and Gemba walks. We understand the morality and ethics of those who we are investigating and auditing. And they, in turn, reciprocate by giving us access to their unconscious which is precisely the place from where human beings make all decisions. It is in this moment, we come to understand what it means to be a young Filipino seafarer as against an Indian, a Polish, a Ukrainian, or a British seafarer. 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.

The next time when a ship runs aground because a ship captain was trying to oblige a hotel manager or another one 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 human reasoning and choices when faced with uncertainty. We don’t just look at the human factors in that unexpected situation; rather, we try to understand the human as a social and cultural being. Training then has a very different meaning. Training is no longer about discipline, punish, schooling, telling, human and organisational factors (or performance), and dehumanization of 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 visualises 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 and certainly not persons – can you imagine the aura of this space? Hierarchy, power, agendas, control, and competing interests in the name of risk assessments. And then, while all the work happens on deck, in tanks, on the shipside, pumprooms, and engine room, the meetings take place in the office space and so it becomes a ritual that must be undertaken without a purpose. This is not the meeting of persons, 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? It is interesting that 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, personal protective equipment 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 human sufferings in the risk and safety industry remains so deeply embedded in the discourse of personal responsibility and mindless bureaucracy that is so misaligned with practice? Why do we not encourage some serious two-way conversations at work that would bring about meaningful change? More on this in a podcast and an article to follow.

If you wish to listen to the full story, a podcast comprising of a detailed interview with John along with the transcript is available.

Note: All photographs published in this article are taken with consent from John William Soria, copyrights are reserved to the original photographer.

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