Subverting the culture of safety

You hear it from every Tom, Dick and Harry: 80% of all maritime accidents are caused by human error. Maybe so but what of it? The clichéd statement says nothing about what causes the errors to be committed in the first place, sometimes by seasoned ship captains. Nor does it suggest what needs to be done aside from requiring seafarers to undergo more training like dogs in Pavlov‘s laboratory.

For sure, you see many attempts to propagate a culture of maritime safety – by shipping companies that invest in better shipboard equipment; by Port State Control and vetting inspectors; by international audit bodies; by unions cracking down on FOC shipping; and by environmental activists. But how could anything thrive in a garden full of weeds and pests? Below is a list of such weeds and pests – 11 factors that continue to stunt the growth of a safety culture:

  1. Pride and conceit on the part of some ship captains, leading to complacency and the smug feeling that one is too good to make mistakes
  2. Misplaced compassion for errinig ship captains who commit culpable mistakes that result in serious accidents and who set a bad example for other officers
  3. Lack of self-confidence and assertiveness amongst officers from developing countries, resulting in their blindly obeying orders from foreign captains and senior officers even if these could compromise safety
  4. Over-reliance on modern navigational tools (e.g., ECDIS) at the expense of good old seamanship
  5. Increased paperwork on board due to tighter shipping regulations, thus exacerbating the problem of crew stress and fatigue
  6. Crew discontent and low morale arising from inadequate pay and poor working conditions on board
  7. Poor government oversight on maritime education & training (MET) institutions
  8. Maritime trainers who pretend to know but are ignorant, who teach but do not enlighten
  9. Corruption in state regulatory agencies and private MET institutions to a point where quality standards are cast aside
  10. Corporate greed, which leads to cutting corners when it comes to safety
  11. Tendency to treat seafarers as commodities and not as humans whose rights and welfare must be safeguarded above all

The last two – corporate greed and the commodification of seafarers – must surely be the most insidious. They not only gnaw away at the branches and leaves of what we call safety culture. They threaten to kill the very roots of the tree. ~Barista Uno


5 Replies to “Subverting the culture of safety”

  1. Alexandre Gonçalves

    A quite difficult, complex issue.

    It is easy to forget that safety in our industry is not given, but created and developed by people, and people create safety through practice. On the other hand, it must be acknowledged that, since we operate in a productivity-oriented system, there is a tendency to trade safety (or thoroughness) for efficiency, as Erik Hollnagel pointed out.

    That tension seems to be behind many of the factors you listed — factors that may be causes, but are also by-products of the maritime industry.

    • Barista Uno

      Thanks very much for your comment.

      No doubt, shipping folks “operate in a productivity-oriented system”. But the moment we barter safety for efficiency, we compromise it.

      Nothing wrong with the drive for corporate profit. It is corporate greed that the article questions.

  2. Ardeshir Yousefi

    Dear Barista,

    You raised some valuable points which I hope the industry takes notice of. As you mentioned advances in ship structure and equipment do not necessarily make ships safer; otherwise, we would not see so many errors causing 80% of the maritime accidents.

    Legislations, Trainings, Inspections & Victimization are not going to work either. Once the industry resumes treating the seafarers as humans again, then we can have some hope.

    Well done Barista and thanks for your good work.

    ASTA Marine Consultancy

  3. Michael B. Cuanzon

    Very objective analysis. On second reading this appears to be a thorough discription of the state of MET and Maritime Administration in the country. Maybe you should add…the temporary appointments of Marina Administrators which affect the government’s work to assist and regulate the various maritime institutions according to the present requirements of the Maritime Conventions the country has ratified.

  4. Capt JD Smith

    Well stated – for captains, sr officers & marine pilots alike. Most case studies indicate that the first casualty of fatigue is Judgement – and hence the largest portion of transportation accidents is attributed to fatigue. I hear from reliable sources that about the only (masters of) container ships worldwide actually enforcing STCW/Manila 2012 standards are masters aboard most US-flag ships. Many aboard FOC ships are fearful of losing command (never return from vacation) if they dared enforcement of ethical work/rest regimes called for in the new STCW safety standards to protect worker safety, the environment, ships, cargo & endangered public safety upon the congested waterways of the worlds oceans. A united merchant marine/ pilotage front and continued public conversation are needed to promote meaningful action to prevent the next Costa Concordia, Exxon Valdez or BP oil spill in your national waters.

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