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Propel: ‘Ticking boxes never made anyone safer’

The recent tragic accident of the Stellar Daisy, which sank in the South Atlantic at the end of March with the loss of 22 lives, has reignited the ship safety debate.

Benedikte Wentworth, CEO of Propel, a Norway-based maritime management consulting firm specialising in safety, reckons the whole industry needs to change its focus when it comes to maritime safety.

Wentworth believes human failure tops the agenda of large global cooperations, including the oil majors and the company believes this focus will trigger a much needed paradigm shift in shipping’s approach to safety potentially threatening the business models of the dominant providers of safety services, including class societies, flag state control, port state control and vetting schemes.

“Our mission is to advance this paradigm shift by leveraging unique insights and proven alternative methodology, including new 3D training simulation solutions,” Wentworth says.

In Wentworth’s opinion, the general approach to ‘being safe’ typically consists of three strategies – avoid failures by doing it right in the first place, manage threats and failures when they occur (before they escalate), and be prepared to handle critical situations.

Wentworth reckons most shipping companies only focus on the first and third strategy, but often overlook the second, which is managing threats and failures when they occur.

“If failures are not handled properly, they may develop into critical situations and accidents. This is a blind spot because the biased focus on doing it right makes people reluctant to be open about their failures, concerns and mistakes. It is important that these three strategies are interlinked and must be combined,” Wentworth maintains.

Wentworth has noticed that today’s approach to preventing ship accidents is geared towards the first of these strategies – Do it right in the first place, however, she thinks 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, insurance 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,” Wentworth warns.

She sees human factors as key to prevent threats and failures from escalating. However, she believes improving safety or performance is not only about improving individuals but also improving collaboration.

Wentworth suggests the shipping industry could learn from the aviation industry where the transformation towards a more collaborative and open culture started 20 years ago by implementing what is called ‘threat and error management’.

The ongoing crisis of the shipping market has triggered a new round of consolidation in the industry. Wentworth reckons consolidations are clearly needed to rebalance the supply and demand in most shipping segments. However, she also sees risks resulting from these mergers and acquisitions.

“Attention is primarily directed towards financial performance, often at the expense of people and culture. Larger organisations and fleets, as well as the merging of different cultures, represent changes in risks that must be managed,” Wentworth says.

Talking about the current technology revolution in the shipping industry, Wentworth believes new technology will provide great benefits to facilitate and support operations, and also introduce new risks. However, it is difficult to determine whether overall risks will increase.

“The impact of new technology is hard to predict, both in the maritime industry as well as in other industries. And, as with any change, we need to prepare. With increased use of technology, there will be a constant need to empower the people involved and help them manage threats and failures,” Wentworth concludes.


  1. Interesting and useful commentary. However, the ‘elephant in the room’ is the dismal failure of the highly politicised IMO to deal with the maritime industry’s ‘incestuous circle’ i.e. the cosy and collusive relationships between Class, flag states, shipowner lobby groups, charterers, mining companies as cargo shippers and the P&I Clubs to circumvent the implementation of regulations that would improve safety dramatically. This ‘circle’ cites human/seafarer failure as the convenient cause of virtually all accidents. Don’t believe it. The circumstances of the ‘Stellar Daisy’ loss proves that the ‘incestuous circle’ and their profit focused collusion is the true root cause of many maritime casualties. Samuel Plimsol would weep.

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