A few years back, I did extensive research on “safety culture in shipping” as part of my project for higher studies.
I was so fascinated with this subject that I continued reading about and exploring it.
And while I was doing all that, I found that in the present form no sane seafarer or shore representative would show any interest in the concept called safety culture.
They can fake it though.
Few who would show the interest will surely see their interest die down very soon.
The only community to have their interest in this subject for a long time is the “management students” and ‘people at a higher level of organization hierarchy”.
Because most of the time safety culture is not discussed in a simpler language, the language that I, you and most of the people would understand.
For example, here is one of the definitions of safety culture by “health & safety executive” website
The safety culture of an organisation is the product of individual and group values, attitudes, perceptions, competencies, and patterns of behaviour that determine the commitment to, and the style and proficiency of, an organisation’s health and safety management.
The definition is definitely good and leaves nothing to doubt. But if you show this definition to the seafarers, they would say…Oh yeh!! but we have some work to finish.
If we want to bring a safety culture on our ships we need to involve our seafarers and the first tier of shore staff.
We cannot do that without them understanding the concept of safety culture.
So what is safety culture?
What is the safety culture?
Here is the simple definition of safety culture.
Safety culture is the environment on the ships where ship’s staff perform each task with the required safety measures even in situations where bypassing the safety seems to be a much convenient and quicker option of completing the task.
Here is another definition.
In situations where a trade-off is required between two things (one being safety), if the company or the ship management always choose “safety”, that ship or the company is said to have a good safety culture.
Are you ready to trade-off a few benefits for safety?
Let us take the example of enclosed space entry.
Entering the enclosed space without safety precautions is much easier. Just imagine how many tasks we do not have to do if we choose to enter enclosed space without following safety precautions
- We do not have to bring and keep SCBA near to the entrance.
- We do not have to bring the gas meter and check the gas levels in the compartment
- We can use the person required to be standby at the entrance of enclosed space for some other important work and thus increase the output for the day.
Definitely, entering a space without proper procedures can save a lot of time and resources.
But do we always trade-off all these benefits with safety? Are we willing to let go of these benefits for the sake of safety each time?
In a safety-conscious environment, the answer would always be a “Yes”.
Do you trade-off your “convenience” for safety?
This was just one example.
Let us take one more simple example.
You are the master of the ship having a chat with the chief officer in the CCR. Now chief officer wants to show you something on the main deck.
Problem is that you are not in proper safety dress to be able to go on deck. And it is neither available in CCR nor is there anyone else who can get it for you quickly.
It is inconvenient for you to go to your room to put on your safety shoes and helmet. It is convenient to just go on deck and have a look at whatever the chief officer is trying to show you.
Are you willing to trade off your inconvenience for safety?
On ships and companies with good safety culture, people are willing to trade-off something good for safety. And most importantly they do so even when no one is watching them.
Do the company always a trade-off “costs and budget” for safety?
It is not always with the ship staff. A company with a good safety culture is always ready for the trade-off when it comes to safety.
Here is an example.
A day before arrival at a port, the engine governor had some issues and because of that engine could only be operated locally (in emergency mode). Spares are arranged at the next port of call.
If the issue is reported to the port authorities, port authorities would require the vessel to be escorted by a tug in the channel and an extra tug for berthing.
This means the extra costs of thousands of dollars.
The company can save this cost if the issue is not reported to the port authorities. Not only that, but the company also saves a lot of effort to explain to the shipowners the conditions that led to this situation.
The only question is, Will the company trade these costs and efforts for safety?
In a company with a good safety culture, safety would be chosen without any discussions. Not reporting to the port authorities will not be an option.
In fact, in a company with good safety culture even when the port authorities do not require the tug to escort the vessel, they will carry out the risk assessment and request for an escort tug if it is necessary.
Choosing the safety in a trade-off: Always
Now you may remember the situations in your company or the ship where you or your company chose safety when it could have traded that for something more lucrative.
But that does not mean your ship or company has an excellent safety culture.
Safety culture has levels.
In an excellent safety culture, the winner of the trade-off does not change with the situations. Safety is always the winner, every single time.
IMO definition of safety culture
IMO defines the safety culture as
An organization with a “safety culture” is one that gives appropriate priority to safety and realizes that safety has to be managed like other areas of the business. For the shipping industry, it is in the professionalism of seafarers that the safety culture must take root.
If you look closely, IMO’s definition too implies that in situations where the trade-off is required, safety is the one that wins (priority to safety) in an organization with a safety culture.
Safety culture – Who is the Odd man out
Let us come back to the example where the master needs to go to the deck with the chief officer but his safety gears are in his cabin.
There could be three possibilities in this case.
- Master may decide to delay his going to deck for the time being as he does not have the safety gear and he does not wish to climb up to his cabin to bring that.
- Master may decide to get his safety gears and then go to the deck with proper safety gears
- Master may go to the deck without safety gear
In the first two possibilities, the master can assume to be safety conscious. But that does not mean that the ship has a good safety culture.
Safety culture is not about individuals. It is about the mindset of the entire crew and employees of the company.
And as another definition of HSE says, “safety culture is about how things are done around here”.
In our example, safety culture is about the reaction of the chief officer (and other crew presents there or those who get to know this later).
From the three possibilities, with what action of the master will the master find himself as an odd man out in the ship’s environment?
Which actions of the master would the crew find out of the ordinary? Which actions would raise their eyebrows?
If the master finds himself as an odd man out if he goes to the deck without safety gear, the ship has a good safety culture.
In fact, in good safety culture, the master would be stopped from going to the deck without safety gear.
The environment or the culture of the workplace (ships in our case) plays an important role in changing the mindset of the odd man in the environment.
The odd man in culture will very soon find himself changed and dissolved in the prevailing culture.
This means in a bad safety culture a safety-conscious seafarer will soon find himself behaving in an unsafe manner.
Similarly, in good safety culture, a seafarer with unsafe behavior will soon find himself behaving in a safe manner.
Relation of Safety culture with non-safety issues
Irrespective of how odd it may seem but the safety culture has a direct relation with non-safety issues in any company.
Well, I am not saying it. M.D. Cooper, a safety culture expert said it. He said…
Safety culture does not operate in a vacuum: it affects, and in turn is affected by, other non-safety-related operational processes or organizational systems.
In Maritime context, these non-safety related operational processes could be something like
- how well the seafarers are treated by the crewing department.
- Welfare schemes provided to the seafarers by the company
- MARPOL compliance standards of the company and crew
- Inter-departmental relations in a company.
All these are some of the non-safety issues but all these contribute and affect the safety culture onboard ships.
Promoting safety culture on board ships?
Having a good safety culture onboard ships is something that everyone desires.
After all, it does not cost a dime and saves a lot of injuries, insurance costs and improves the brand image of the company.
But having a good safety culture is difficult in any industry.
How can people in a system influence the behavior of other people in the company? In the present times where hierarchies are diminishing, this looks to be a daunting task.
If that sounds difficult, how about the maritime industry where the people who would want to have an influence (Shore staff) are working thousands of miles away from the people who need to be influenced (ship staff).
For this reason, improving the safety culture in the maritime industry is more difficult than any other industry.
In future articles on this blog, I will simplify the process of improving safety culture onboard ships.
The benefits that having a good safety culture offers outshines benefits earned from any other concept.
There are a few reasons that in spite of bringing so many benefits, the companies are hesitant to invest in safety culture.
One because the benefits of a good safety culture are indirect.
Second because it requires the companies to sometimes let go few benefits whenever a trade-off is required with safety.
But if you are ready for these trade-offs, be ready to earn the benefits.
About Capt Rajeev Jassal
Capt. Rajeev Jassal has sailed for over 20 years mainly on crude oil, product and chemical tankers. He holds MBA in shipping & Logistics degree from London. He has done extensive research on quantitatively measuring Safety culture onboard and safety climate ashore which he believes is the most important element for safer shipping.
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