SSA begins Safety Management System assimilation

Maine firm takes initial steps to purge ‘reactive culture’ at SSA.

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The Steamship Authority is working on a Safety Management System — one of the key recommendations made by a consultant after the ferry service suffered some serious breakdowns in 2018. - Rich Saltzberg

Nine months after HMS Consulting president John Sainsbury revealed pervasive safety flaws in Steamship Authority vessel operations to an audience in the Falmouth High School auditorium, the ferry line has begun to implement Sainsbury’s chief recommendation, a safety management system (SMS). Representatives from Safety Management Systems, LLC, based in Portland, Maine, sat down with SSA brass in Falmouth Thursday for their first implementation meeting on the SMS project. December 2021 is when project is slated for completion.

“Basically what SMS is — think of it as a series of policies and procedures in place to manage workplace safety,” SSA health, safety, quality, and environment manager Angela Sampson told The Times. Sampson is project manager for the SMS integration. 

A “Comprehensive Review of the Steamship Authority’s Operations,” a report generated by HMS in the wake of public outcry from Vineyarders who were exasperated with the SSA after a litany of ferry problems in the spring and summer of 2018, gave special emphasis to SMS, which it termed a type of process-based management. The HMS report stated such a system would “contribute greatly to the mitigation of potential future fleet incidents.” The report described a future SMS as having “a very high impact, perhaps the highest of the recommendations, on SSA operations.” 

The HMS report noted, “To prevent a repeat of the spate of incidents that instigated this study, or worse, it is necessary to evolve from a reactive culture to a process-based culture.”

HMS drew on the findings of the 1987 Herald of Free Enterprise disaster that took the lives of 193 passengers and crew. “In the investigation,” the HMS report states, “the root cause was identified as a ‘disease of sloppiness’ on the part of the vessel’s management. This assessment was centered on the company’s lack of process-based management. Since this incident, the industry has evolved significantly, but evidence suggests that the SSA has not.”

“‘There’s nothing broken here, it’s always worked,’” HMS quotes a “key” SSA staffer.
“But from our experience, this could not be further from the truth,” the report states.

When The Times asked Sampson if any of the incidents analyzed in the HMS report might have transpired differently had an SMS system been in place at the time, SSA spokesman Sean Driscoll interceded. “We’re not going to speculate about that,” he said.
However, HMS had no trouble speculating in its report. 

“The root cause analysis (RCA) performed on the March 17th MV Martha’s Vineyard blackout identified 21 individual issues with the vessel plant and the way it was operated,” the report stated. “The net result of all of these issues was an unsafe condition on the vessel that led to the incident. While the blackout did not result in any serious casualties, had it occurred minutes later, while the vessel was maneuvering into the dock, the consequences could have been dire. Quality and safety processes inherent to most modern marine operations are designed to identify and correct issues before they manifest into a potentially unsafe condition. The identification and correction of just one of the 21 issues mentioned above may have prevented the incident entirely. Currently, there is no system in place at the SSA to accomplish this. The SSA’s reactive culture is designed to address the immediate cause, but not the root cause.” 

Sampson said implementation is more than a talking-head activity. “It’s more than just having meetings behind a desk, it’s really boots on the ground and really getting onboard all of our vessels in the fleet,” she said.

Sampson described the adoption of the system as “completely voluntary,” and that generally speaking, such a system is reserved for oceangoing vessels. In that context, she described it as “really exciting that we’re going to be above and beyond compliance.”