Safety culture: the root of the problem

Despite labourious efforts to prevent ship accidents, maritime remains considerably more dangerous than other professions – but help is at hand, writes Dr Torkel Soma from Oslo-based management consultancy Propel. 

Since the 1980s, avoiding accidents in the maritime sector has become a major priority and many new systems have been devised to counteract complacency. But in the last decade alone there have been more than 2,500 safety-related incidents every year, with fatal accidents 20 times more likely than in other industries. 

Why have these initiatives been so ineffective? Unfortunately, most of them amount to mere box-ticking exercises, which are to ship safety as sharpening a pencil is to completing a stack of paperwork – a first step undeniably, but if we stop there, the problem remains.

In shipping, the general approach to safety comprises avoiding failures by doing it right in the first place, managing threats and failures when they occur, before they escalate. Yet research has demonstrated that although the first has been targeted, there is a blind spot in terms of dealing with the second. 

Ships are built by the lowest bidder, and at the cheapest possible cost; unless specified otherwise by the owner, their design quite often incorporates an amalgamation of the cheapest equipment available, with low cost prioritised over interoperability. Even if ‘The Manual’ is read and followed to the letter, it does not guarantee things will not still go wrong. The problem is compounded by a reluctance amongst crews – many of them much more likely to be replaced than staff in other industries – to admit to failures and mistakes, but also to come forward with concerns about operability and procedures. 

In the case of the Deepwater Horizon blowout, which claimed 11 lives and caused huge environmental damage, rig personnel had knowingly bypassed safety barriers. Failures were identified but the root cause of the problem — human neglect – was not factored in.

We see that there is an overblown trust in procedures – in ‘doing it right’ – and this combines with a fear of coming forward amongst crews to brew a deadly cocktail. We need to apply a new approach that factors in these elements, by encouraging a culture in which protecting human lives, and assets, is more important than apportioning blame.

While safety culture surveys do exist, many of them have proven unfit for purpose, with a recent review of safety culture maturity instruments demonstrating only three of 43 valid instruments. To this end, Propel has published a paper outlining guidelines to assist shipowners in measuring and quantifying the culture of their companies.

The most fundamental is content validity, which determines how well a safety initiative, or instrument, addresses an issue. Then, with a high predictive validity, future events can be predicted and adjusted for before they occur. 

Propel has eight SAYFR leadership behaviours (8SLBs) which predict good performance; if an organisation scores low in terms of the 8SLBs, it is a good indicator of future problems. In fact, many departments we consulted with have received low 8SLB scores only to have accidents occur in the intervening time, before action was taken.

Meanwhile, once action was taken based upon a low 8SLBs score, a different shipping company experienced a 60% reduction in the frequency of serious accidents. That level was maintained five years after the investigation.

Experiences show what we need is a proactive safety culture, which moves beyond box-ticking and rewards participation by staff on every organisational strata. If companies can improve their 8SLBs scores, we will see dramatic improvements in ship safety that will save lives, avert catastrophes and bring down costs.


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  1. How long will the industry milk this proverbial cow?

    The Human Factor is inherently unpredictable.

    A well-trained and motivated individual, who is known to consistently do the right thing is also capable of erring owing to factors like emotions, stress etc.

    We need to plan operations expecting and factoring negative intervention by the human factor, putting in place systems which would work and give (safe) results regardless of how the human factor performs.

    Yet, we have so-called industry leaders who keep selling this myth of there being a “safety culture” and how it is possible to fix everything with training, competency and motivation.

    If the Human Element is at the core of a majority of incidents in the industry (a claim I take exception to), how can we have a solution that relies on the Human Factor?

    Shipping companies have wasted their time and precious lives flirting with this. It is time that QHSE/HSEQ/LPSQ Departments are replaced with R&D and Innovation departments where real work can be done in isolating the human factor from day-to-day operations.

    Anything short of this is a sham and a disservice to all the brave seafarers who risk life and limb at the sharp end.

  2. Most of shipboard issues if were left for seafarers to deal with, and supportive Management policy was practised the sea life would have continued to hold the thrill and charm it was know for. More importantly, lot of unwanted equipment and regulations would have been better designed to add value and benefit to ship staff and also the owner.

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