News: B.C. Ferries aims to be safest in the world

Times Colonist - May 24, 2015

March 22, 2006, was the undisputed worst day in B.C. Ferries history: That was the day Queen of the North ran aground 70 nautical miles south of Prince Rupert and sank. Two of the 101 passengers were never found and have been presumed drowned. But that day was also a turning point for the ferry corporation, in that it began an organizational safety program that continues to this day.

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Capt. Michael Toevs has spent his life piloting ocean vessels, from fishboats as a young man to the B.C. Ferries vessels of today.

Despite 21 years with the ferry corporation, the 63-year-old Toevs says nothing beats practice when it comes to learning safe ship manoeuvres. And the best way to practise getting out of dangerous situations is do it without putting anyone in danger.

So when it comes to practising something like docking a fully loaded vessel in a high wind, ferry captains like Toevs use the three simulators installed by B.C. Ferries to instruct captains and bridge crews.

“You get to play with all kinds of scenarios without endangering anybody,” said the Victoria man.

It may not be real life, but when bridge crews are put through some tricky situations, the tension shoots up, said B.C. Ferries Capt. Scott Tuttle, who manages the bridge-simulator program in addition to piloting ferries himself.

“Crews really get lost in the simulator and they take it very seriously,” Tuttle said. “So there is some serious stress in the simulator.”

Tuttle said most B.C. Ferries employees are given a chance on the simulator to give them a sense of what the organization’s role is all about: safe and reliable transportation. And it has proved so successful, it’s hoped the simulators and instruction will be marketed outside the corporation as a training institution.

The three simulators, at Nanaimo, Swartz Bay and Tsawwassen, were built as part of an $8-million investment in safety after the sinking of Queen of the North on March 22, 2006, which is regarded as the fleet’s worst day.

Jamie Marshall, B.C. Ferries vice-president of fleet operation and a certified ship’s captain who began his career in the navy, said the simulators are part of a corporate-wide safety initiative given fresh impetus after the Queen of the North sinking.

B.C. Ferries captains and officers can also take simulated trips on a variety of vessel types going through tricky parts of the 24 routes, such as Active Pass between Galiano and Mayne islands, or docking at and leaving the 47 terminals.

Marshall said probably the trickiest manoeuvre, one that’s practised regularly, is leaving and docking at Tsawwassen. With the terminal built out from the shore at the end of a long spit, it’s exposed to high winds that can blow at right angles to a manoeuvring ferry.

“That’s a huge area of ship superstructure,” Marshall said. “The ship’s side has wind pushing on it, so the whole vessel acts like a big sail.

“So if you look out during heavy weather, it can look like the ship is crabbing in to Tsawwassen at a weird angle. But it’s the captain adjusting for the situation.”

Simulators also give captains and officers a chance to familiarize themselves with the characteristics of B.C. Ferries’ various ship classifications, 17 throughout the fleet’s 35 ships.

Marshall said B.C. Ferries, with its new building and ship-retirement plans underway, hopes the number of classifications in its fleet will be reduced to about five, making it easier for ship’s officers to move around.

Despite the relatively old age of the fleet, averaging about 32 years, B.C. Ferries vessels are remarkably reliable and safe. In terms of lateness and cancellations of the 180,000-odd sailings made annually, B.C. Ferries amassed a reliability of 99.7 per cent last year.

“Given the age of the fleet, that’s a pretty outstanding record,” Marshall said. “It really demonstrates the pride and effort of our engineering teams that go into supporting our operations.”

Although the corporation is proud of its safety tradition, B.C. Ferries has suffered some headline-producing, even tragic accidents over its 55 years of operation.

For example, in September 2000, a collision between the Spirit of Vancouver Island and an American yacht at Swartz Bay killed the two people aboard the pleasure craft. In August 1992, a vehicle plunged off the loading ramp when the Queen of New Westminster pulled away too soon. A mother and two daughters died.

Both those accidents were examined and both led to changes, including the installation of more than 1,000 closed-circuit TV cameras on terminals, docks and vessels. Cameras linked to the ship’s bridge, for example, now monitor loading ramps to prevent accidents like the Queen of New Westminster tragedy.

But the undisputed worst day in B.C. Ferries history was March 22, 2006, when Queen of the North ran aground 70 nautical miles south of Prince Rupert and sank. Two of the 101 passengers, Gerald Foisey, 46, and Shirley Rosette, 42, were never found and are presumed drowned. “The Queen of the North was the darkest day in the history of B.C. Ferries,” said Mike Corrigan, the corporation’s president. “It was the first time in our history that we lost a vessel and two people were also lost.”

Only nine days after that sinking, Corrigan was promoted from vice-president of business development to president of the operation. And right from the start, he made organizational safety B.C. Ferries’ single most important goal.

“From that day on, my top focus has been safety,” he said.

Corrigan and the corporation embarked on a number of independent safety audits, and learned the outfit was “as good as any other ferry outfit out there.” But after Queen of the North, that rating was not good enough. Instead, it was decided that B.C. Ferries should aim to be the safest ferry operation in the world.

“We realized to do that, we needed to change our whole safety culture at B.C. Ferries,” he said.

Conversations began with the unions to get employees on side to drive massive changes in how safety was viewed by the 10,000 employees. And the Sail Safe Program began.

At its heart, Sail Safe regards all accidents, minor mishaps or near misses as incidents that must be reported, examined and considered. The premise of the program is that only through close examination, without the need to assign blame, can accidents be prevented.

So the corporation records more than 5,000 incidents every year. The idea is not only to prevent similar incidents, but to identify hazardous trends.

The three simulators for bridge officers were constructed. Protocols for dealing with accidents were written and rehearsed regularly.

In all, the commitment to safety cost B.C. Ferries about $8 million. But last year, insurance premiums to agencies such as WorkSafe B.C. dropped by $1.1 million annually, so it’s already considered to be resulting in positive financial returns.

Also, B.C. Ferries has earned corporate awards that recognize the corporation’s “learning safety culture”: an organizational goal to always be on alert to protect the safety, health and well-being of employees and passengers.

Corrigan’s background and education are not in ships or transport. He majored in business and administration (paid for largely with hockey scholarships) and worked in a variety of businesses before joining B.C. Ferries.

But he is a strong believer in the business philosophy that says successful operations are ones that look out for the health and well-being of employees and customers. As a business philosophy, it works both ways. Healthy, safe employees and customers will look out for the success of an operation.

Corrigan said it appears to be working at B.C. Ferries.

Since 2007, when Sail Safe began, injuries that result in time off work have dropped 60 per cent, from an average of one every day to 140 last year.

Passenger injuries, mostly from slips, trips and falls, are down by nearly as much.

On-time service has improved by 78 per cent. Customer-service ratings have improved. And absenteeism has dropped by 34 per cent.

“That’s all a function of people who are working harder and are happier at work because they really believe their union and management care about their health and well-being on the job and at home,” Corrigan said.

“You really do get it back in spades.”

In one way Corrigan’s commitment is also a fulfilment of a promise he made to his own father.

A miner in the nickel mines of Sudbury, Ont., from the age of 14, his father had risen to be superintendent by 1984 when an accident killed four miners. One of them was about the same age as Corrigan and like him, was about to be married that same year.

“My dad drew a lot of correlations between that young miner and me,” Corrigan said. “So when I got married, it was a tough wedding for him, because he kept on thinking about the young miner lost in the rock burst.

“And I remember him telling me if I was ever in charge of an operation, then I damn well needed to do everything in my power to protect the health, welfare and well-being of every employee,” he said. “It’s something that has always stuck with me.”

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