The Case of OceanGate and 5 Similar Safety Oversights in the Past

The Case of OceanGate and 5 Similar Safety Oversights in the Past

By naming itself OceanGate, the company might have manifested a scandal.

Slow and steady has gotten a bad rap in the tech world which is notorious for moving at an incredibly fast pace. The industry is no longer about producing the most efficient tools but beating your competitors in producing new tools fast. This way of work can quickly become a one-way ticket to a scandalous affair, ultimately dooming the company for good. This seems to have become the case for the infamous submarine Titan developed by the marine company OceanGate, whose disappearance captured headlines and dominated our social media discussions in the past couple of days. 

The submersible carried five billionaires (including the company’s CEO) to see the ruins of the Titanic. At the time of writing this article, all members on board were presumed dead due to a catastrophic implosion of the submarine. 

Following its disappearance a mere two hours into the expedition, much-concerning information about the submersible’s development came to the surface. For instance, the Titan was allegedly controlled using a video game controller, and one of the developers who warned the company about OceanGate having safety concerns in early 2018 was fired for doing so. 

This is not the first time that safety protocols have been ignored at such a magnanimous scale. From the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster to the infamous sinkage of the Titanic—many similar events point to the need to review companies’ perspectives on safety.

The “Titan”ic journey: What happened to OceanGate?

To think that things started out fine and later got worse would not be accurate, for reports have revealed that things with the Titan were a bit off to begin with.

On June 18, 2023, the expedition began, with five people having paid US$250,000 settled on board. They descended into the North Atlantic Ocean where the Titanic’s remains reside. Though they were to return in a few hours, communication was lost an hour and 45 minutes into the journey. This was not uncommon, as previous OceanGate expeditions were also brimming with communication challenges. Disturbingly, new information suggests that the submersible may have imploded shortly after the communication was lost, despite rescue operations spanning four days. 

While this incident has left many people in despair, especially the loved ones of the five people on the submarine, it has also raised many questions about the safety checks conducted before the ill-fated expedition took place, if any.

Safety warnings unheeded

Before embarking on this venture, the passengers were made to sign a waiver that warned them of dire consequences—including death. However, they were not informed about the existing safety compromises in the submersible, as per its original makers.

In early 2018, OceanGate’s engineering team found numerous concerns with the Titan. The director of marine operations at OceanGate, David Lochridge, had created a report emphasizing the need for more testing and highlighting the potential risks faced by passengers as the submersible ventured into extreme depths. According to Lochridge, the submersible was only certified to go as deep as 1,300 meters, falling short of the 4,000 meters required for the Titanic mission. And when he brought this up, he got fired.

Just a couple of months later, more experts chimed in, as OceanGate received a letter from over 30 industry leaders, deep-sea explorers and oceanographers, voicing their apprehension to the company’s CEO, Stockton Rush. They cautioned against the “experimental” approach and the decision to bypass a traditional assessment, warning OceanGate that such choices could result in potentially “catastrophic” issues during the Titanic mission. 

Rush, however, dismissed these concerns. In a blog post, OceanGate claimed that getting tested would have just slowed it down—“Bringing an outside entity up to speed on every innovation before it is put into real-world testing is anathema to rapid innovation.” But would it have changed its fate for the better? Most likely.

5 similar safety oversights in the past

In our quest for progress, we must never cut corners on safety measures. Examining similar incidents from the past serves as a stark reminder of the devastating consequences that can arise from negligence or a disregard for safety protocols. By delving into the following historical events akin to the recent Titan incident, we can glean valuable lessons to prevent future tragedies.

Challenger Space Shuttle disaster (1986)

The Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster in 1986 was a devastating event that claimed the lives of all seven crew members on board. The disaster was caused by the failure of an O-ring seal (which prevents hot gasses from leaking out of the rocket) in one of the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters. This failure was attributed to the unusually cold weather conditions at the time of the launch. 

Despite warnings and concerns about the O-ring’s performance, the decision was made to proceed with the launch, demonstrating a disregard for safety protocols. In the end, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) went ahead with the launch to impress the American population who were losing interest in space missions, with the protection of its astronauts put on the back-burner. The Titan, too, proceeded despite uncertain weather conditions, with one of the billionaires on board—Hamish Harding—even posting about it

Rana Plaza collapse (2013)

The Rana Plaza Collapse in 2013 was a tragic incident in Bangladesh where an eight-story commercial building housing garment factories collapsed, resulting in the deaths of over 1,100 people. The collapse was primarily due to the structural inadequacy of the building, as it was constructed with substandard materials and violated building codes—all in a bid to save money. 

To appease international consumers and keep prices down, the mayor gave the green light to its construction. For a long time, warning signs—like the building quivering whenever the generators were turned on—were ignored. The day before the collapse, an inspector looked at the cracks and deemed the building unsafe, but the workers were called in for work nonetheless. 

Ford Pinto fuel tank controversy (1971)

This is another incident where the pace of production took precedence over the safety of the outcome. The Ford Pinto fuel tank controversy in the 1970s revealed serious flaws in the design of the Ford Pinto, a compact car manufactured by Ford Motor Company. The controversy centered around the placement of the fuel tank, which was susceptible to rupture and fuel leakage in rear-end collisions. 

Tragically, in one instance, a woman’s car burst into flames after being rear-ended, resulting in her passing. Despite being aware of the safety risks, Ford chose not to implement design changes that could have prevented these incidents, all so that it could include the new car in its 1971 lineup.

Grenfell Tower fire (2017)

The Grenfell Tower Fire in 2017 was a devastating fire that engulfed a social housing tower in London, resulting in the loss of 72 lives. The fire spread rapidly due to the flammable exterior cladding and insulation used during a recent renovation, which did not meet fire safety standards. 

Compounding the tragedy were deficiencies in the building’s fire safety protocols, including inadequate evacuation procedures and the absence of a central alarm system. Subsequent reports found that this apathy toward safety was fueled by frugal behavior and political agendas. 

Titanic (1912)

Finally, the sinking of the Titanic. The infamous tragedy that set the stage for the Titan’s demise, The Titanic sank in 1912 after hitting an enormous iceberg. However, the iceberg shares only part of the blame for making the “unsinkable” ship sink. Historians have revealed that dismissing iceberg warnings, taking a fatal wrong turn and going faster than required also contributed to the disaster. To make matters worse, the ship had not been equipped with an adequate number of lifeboats despite a civil servant pointing out the deficiency.

Most of these events are a result of trying to impress the world, save a few bucks and be the first to do something. But at what cost?

Perhaps the Titan debacle is a clarion call to innovators to take a step back and put safety above all else. Faster is not always better, and taking a long-term perspective is better than settling for short-term adrenaline pumps and adverse consequences.

At the same time, perhaps it is a call to not underestimate the forces of nature and to know they are capable of much more than we think.

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Header Image by OceanGate

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