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Risk Management Lessons from Shipping Container Losses



Like everywhere else, high demand increases pressure to cut corners and take undue risks. Rushed staff can skip process and safety controls. Bloomberg News (April 26, 2021) analyzed losses of shipping containers from stacked-to-the-sky cargo vessels. Notice the risk of each decision:

  • Loading ships higher - raising risks of instability

  • Navigating through storms rather than around to save fuel and time

  • Incorrect weight labeling of containers, with heavier containers on upper layers causing lower containers to buckle

  • Rushed loading leading to improper securing of containers

  • Overworked crew members, multiplying human error

  • PTSD becoming common in crew members

  • Responsibility scattered in different realms: port authorities, shipping lines, captains and crews, and shippers, but little accountability or change

Though about shipping, this could have been written about many industries. In manufacturing, similar errors occur all the time. As we see industry orders returning, high customer demand with pressure to reduce delivery times often results in cut corners like:

  • Incomplete reading of instructions leading to missed controls

  • Skipped records get backfilled after the fact, with guesses

  • In-process and final inspections get rushed, AQLs fudged

  • Squeezing a few extra parts in a full box to avoid starting over

  • Processes change without updating documents, losing reproducibility

  • Rushed or skipped cleaning leaves FOD on product

  • Ignored safety controls are high-risk roulette

  • Skipped periodic maintenance can lead to higher repair costs

  • Skipped breaks don’t allow the brain and body to reset, impacting morale, focus, safety and productivity

All of this affects conformance to customer, safety, & regulatory requirements.


Finding solutions: ISO added the concept of reducing human error in many standards – because tired, stressed, or disengaged brains make mistakes. While automation can help us function faster with (we hope) fewer errors, it’s not a fit in every case. The emphasis in ISO standards is a self-correcting sustainable system, where caught mistakes and near-misses lead to improvement, and team engagement means everyone shares the opportunity to improve the whole.

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