Workplace Culture

The Titanic Tragedy Continues to Teach New Lessons

By Staff Report

May. 24, 2012

The sea was calm, the night bitter-cold and the band played until the bitter end after a seemingly impenetrable vessel met its match. A confluence of errors, and a steadfast belief that the great ship could not founder, led to arguably the most famous avoidable disaster of all time: the sinking of the Titanic.

The tragedy took place a century ago this past April, but the legend and interest in the mighty Titanic, which was done in by an iceberg, remain strong today, and there are some intriguing lessons still to be found among the ship’s wreckage. For the 100th anniversary, publisher HarperCollins reprinted a book titled Wreck and Sinking of the Titanic written by “the great descriptive writer” Marshall Everett. (Incidentally, you can read the original here, which has some interesting photos that didn’t appear in the reprint.) It’s a fascinating read really, although its tales are best read with a degree of skepticism: such as the story of how Captain Edward Smith swam out to rescue a baby before returning to the ship as it prepared to meet Davy Jones’ Locker, or how the Titanic’s owners wanted the ship to break a speed record on its maiden voyage, a claim that seems highly unlikely.

Of course, the tragedy brought many advances in boating safety, including the common-sense requirement that ships have enough lifeboats for all crew and passengers, and the creation of the International Ice Patrol, which monitors the North Atlantic for icebergs. Yet, beyond the obvious lessons, there were two stories in particular that caught my attention.

The first pertained to someone who wasn’t even on the ship: a woman named Mary Downey who worked for White Star Line, the company that owned the Titanic. Downey, according to the “great descriptive writer,” was in charge of answering the phones. When news of the disaster broke, she reportedly came into work at 6 a.m. and worked 26 hours. During that stretch, she only took a short rest in the afternoon and she had the help of an assistant for only part of her shift. Downey, according to the story, almost singlehandedly handled all the phone calls that came in from worried, grief-stricken relatives, and she undoubtedly took the brunt of their anger and consoled them, as well.

It struck me how far we have come in terms of companies offering workers and their families assistance in times of need through things like employee assistance programs. EAPs, with roots that trace back to 1917, have been evolving and growing ever since. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 28 percent of private-sector full-time workers and 54 percent of public-sector full-time employees had access to EAPs in 2008. While EAPs are not without their criticisms, it would be unfathomable in 2012 for a tragedy to take place and a company employ the services of one person to be the sounding board for grieving workers and their families. And, yet, poor Mary, if the story can be believed, had to go it alone.

Another story that caught my attention was in regard to the “fifty happy-go-lucky youngsters shipped as bellboys or messengers” who all met their doom on the Titanic, opting, according to the book, for a last smoke while on duty and joking around with passengers rather than trying to escape. That number of youngsters is suspect, of course. Of the victualling staff on the Titanic, three are listed as bellboys, for instance, ages 14, 15 and 16, and there’s a 15-year-old apprentice electrician—all from the United Kingdom. All, indeed, died in the tragedy.

As a parent, learning about this really pulls at the heartstrings, but it also shows how far we have come in terms of protecting our children from the workforce. Of course, in the U.S. it wasn’t until 1938 when the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed that federal laws were put in place to monitor child labor. But while the U.S. regulates it, child labor still goes unregulated in many parts of the world.

And that, too, is a tragedy.

James Tehrani is Workforce Management’s copy desk chief. Comment below, or email

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