New approach to maritime safety needed

For years, the shipping industry has focused on regulations and procedures to improve safety. Yet shipping is still at risk of major accidents. The whole industry needs to change its focus. Ticking boxes never made anyone safer, argues Dr Torkel Soma, chief scientific officer at SAYFR in the first of a two-part series for Splash.

It has been well documented that most maritime accidents (~80%) are caused by human error. Still, most of the focus on learning is rooted in technical causes and adding procedures and checklists.

Despite this bias, many accident investigation reports pinpoint that the leadership or safety culture was the root cause of more recent accidents such as the Bulk Jupiter, El Faro, Helge Ingstad and Costa Concordia, as well as older accidents such as the Exxon Valdez, Bow Mariner, Herald of Free Enterprise and Amoco Cadiz.

Industry blind spot

The critical failures leading to the accident were in most cases known before the accident took place. This demonstrates that failures which are not handled properly may develop into critical situations and accidents. This is a blind spot because the biased focus on technicalities and “impeccable” safety inspections makes people reluctant to be open about their failures, concerns and mistakes.

We at SAYFR think shipping companies, and the whole industry, needs to change its focus. Thousands of auditors and inspectors across the world are engaged by classification societies, flag and port state authorities, vetting and insurance companies and HSEQ departments. They verify that ships do the right thing and comply with technical and procedural requirements. However, ticking boxes never made anyone safer.

Cover-up culture

Also, and worryingly, there is a cover-up culture causing errors and unsafe practices. There are now so many procedures and checklists that, in some cases, it is impossible to comply with all of them. The fear of failure is driving accident statistics, and surveys reveal that 45% of seafarers admit that they regularly do not comply with procedures.

I firmly believe that human factors are key to prevent threats and failures from escalating. Yet improving safety or performance is about improving not only individuals but also the collaboration between sea and shore staff, between officers and crew and between different nationalities and cultures on board ships.

Huge potential to reduce accidents

Although this is recognized, it is not always addressed, so I believe a new approach is necessary to improve collaboration and reduce risks. Indeed, collaboration is strongly correlated with the risk of accidents and business interruption. Our experience of working on multiple projects over the years shows that it is possible to reduce the risk of major accidents by up to 75%.

However, there is no quick fix to improve collaboration and implement behavioural changes through, for example, training courses. Changing the culture is key and that process takes time. To help operators improve their approach to safety, proven methodologies must be used.

Culture assessments key to improving safety

In order to understand how the organizational culture influences safety, there is a need to use methodologies specialized for this purpose. One thing that many people are ignorant of is that a key professional competence of organizational psychology is advanced mathematics and data analysis. The evaluation of organizational culture relies on interviews, observations and questionnaires applying psychometric instruments that are tailor-made to ensure valid and reliable results. The professionals drive the process while the data provides the results. As a consequence, the more and better the data on these topics, the more valid, reliable and to-the-point are the results. Therefore, SAYFR has developed tailor-made psychometric instruments to assess these topics and has a database of responses from about 300 000 seafarers.

Reduction in the frequency of serious accidents

It is not only the psychometric instruments that rely on data. The use of digitalization, the internet of things (IoT), sensor data, machine learning, and big data has picked up in recent years. The idea is that those with the most data can create the best analytics and forecasts. With the use of more quality data, risk assessments and worst-case scenario simulations provide reliable predictions and identify effective interventions to prevent accidents.

In short, what we at SAYFR see is that the best shipowners and operators have a proactive organizational culture that goes beyond ticking the ‘compliance boxes’ and instead applies a collaborative, trusting approach from top to bottom in the company’s organization. This also includes assessing culture using valid and reliable survey instruments. This is what really helps to improve safety.


Splash is Asia Shipping Media’s flagship title offering timely, informed and global news from the maritime industry 24/7.


  1. Read the Authors article many years ago in Gard News -an excellent Gard publication but unfortunately discontinued . ” Ship safety and high reliability organisations” . By Torkel Soma, Partner,
    Propel Maritime Management Consulting, Oslo.
    How can companies build a culture that nurtures high reliability?” – absolutely fantastic.

    But quoting the contents of above wisdom in cover-up organisations was an extremely dangerous thing to do. What the Author did not mention, was that “cover-up ” cultures morph frequently into their nasty sister called ” pathological culture” , that tops the scale of ugliness – my well explored working environment.
    Below part of the said article quoting some of the definitions.

    Low interest in safety. Here the crew see their managers (on board and/or ashore) as indifferent to the prevention of failures. Responsibilities are not followed up. If somebody fails or makes a mistake there is a fair chance that nobody will care or notice. Hence, the near miss reporting is low. Failure is seen as a problem caused by the crew; it is thought that little can be done to prevent problems from occurring. Initiatives to improve reliability are driven by external pressure from clients, class, etc.

    Self-interest dominates over company interest. For example, managers’ priority is to maintain their own power, to avoid conflict and play down problems. If you fail or criticise, you are seen as a threat to the power and the harmony of the working climate.

    As a result, people are afraid of failing, reluctant to speak up, have a rigid focus on responsibilities and focus mostly on overall results such as budgets and time of arrival. There is little co-operation between departments. Hence, company interests that are dependent upon several departments such as planning of off-hire, delivery of spares, communication with crew, cargo troubleshooting, etc., are given lower priority.

    Company interest starts to dominate over self-interest. Here managers are oriented towards routines and compliance with procedures. Reliability is seen as something they have (or don’t have), with reference to the quality of their management systems. If you fail, this is seen as a need either to improve procedures or to enforce compliance. Lessons learned are efficiently used to share such experience. People feel that their managers treat them relatively equitably, but each individual’s positive or negative behaviour can easily be overlooked. While managers see the need for more supervision, the workforce sees the need for more care and personal touch.

    High reliability
    The workforce sees their managers as committed to both high reliability and efficient ship management. Managers are seen as trustworthy and are familiar with daily work challenges (beyond routines). It is acknowledged that high reliability is dependent on how things are done in daily work and is a result of good teamwork and co-operation. If somebody fails, it is seen as an opportunity to learn both for the crew and shore management. Everybody is constantly trying to improve reliability, implying high flexibility and encouragement to critical views.

  2. I have been a Marine Engineering operator since 1983. It is difficult to describe the fear and anxiety that come in to play before a SIRE or Port State inspection. The entire inspection focus is upon finding failure or weakness (which under the time constraints involved is inevitable). Our company Near Miss reporting system is pretty good and I have a good relationship generally with office staff and I am not afraid to mention problems which come up occasionally even when they involve our own shortcomings.
    A few years back we had a USCG inspection in Galveston and the Inspectors came aboard with a very interesting approach by asking us to teach them about our vessel which was a large RO RO. I left the inspection with a renewed confidence in the system and my own ability to manage rather than feeling a nervous wreck.
    If only the SIRE groups would do their homework and read our Near Miss reports before coming aboard and look at things as a collaboration intended to improve operations rather than a disciplinary tool which is how it feels there would be less animosity between regulators and Crews.

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