Ounce of Prevention

Lessons from the Eastland

The S.S. Eastland docked
Edward Tenner recently spoke about “Unintended Consequences” and in his presentation he highlighted an obscure but fascinating story of the S.S. Eastland, a passenger ship in Chicago. It’s a story of trying to resolve one risk but unintentionally creating others.
The ship was commissioned in 1902 by the Michigan Steamship Company and built by the Jenks Ship Building Company. It made its home in the Chicago harbour and travelled the Great Lakes. The ship was top-heavy – no doubt a flawed design – and had on a number of occasions experienced problems with listing.
Safety was top of mind in 1915 and following the well-known disaster of the RMS Titanic. The new federal Seaman’s Act had been passed and required retrofitting of a complete set of lifeboats on the Eastland and other passenger ships. Who among us wasn’t appalled to learn that there weren’t enough lifeboats to ferry the passengers and crew to safety that fateful night in 1912? Yes, legislating lifeboats would seem the logical step to rectify this grievous error in judgment.
Sometimes though, and as Mr. Tenner presented, injury prevention efforts that aim to protect against a specific injury risk can sometimes create a new and unexpected one. So it seems to have been the case with the Eastland because the additional weight of the new lifeboats, ironically, made the doomed vessel more dangerous and it worsened the already severe problem of being top heavy.
It was the morning of July 24, 1915 as passengers were boarding for a day of cruising to a company picnic that the boat began to list while tied to a dock in the Chicago River. The crew tried to compensate by adjusting the ballasts but were not successful and at 7:28am as some passengers moved from one side of the ship to the other with a sudden lurch the ship completely rolled over trapping its occupants below. A total of 844 passengers and crew were killed in what was to become the largest loss of life disaster from a single shipwreck on the Great Lakes.
It’s absurd to think that lifeboats would be the cause of such a catastrophic loss of life on the water and yet their position and weight were factors in the disaster. Not to be ignored is the fact that the ship’s flawed design and top-heavy nature made it susceptible to capsizing.
The story of the SS Eastland offers a number of lessons for us all. Primarily, we take from this story the lesson that we should never expect a one-size-fits-all solution to work in every instance in which it is applied.
We are curious to know if you have encountered instances where the solution to one injury risk has inadvertently created another risk or possibly even an unexpected benefit? Here are a couple of others we have come up with:
  • Hard shelled elbow pads used in ice hockey to protect elbows but in addition to protecting elbows increased the number of concussions
  • Helmets used for skiing and snowboarding do a great job of keeping heads safer, and as a real benefit they keep your ears warm
Please provide your examples in the comments below…

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Injury Prevention Team