It’s a source of curiosity, if not puzzlement. Despite tighter regulations, stricter inspection regimes, increased training requirements and more advanced ship technologies, we are not seeing a stop to marine accidents that, on hindsight, could have easily been prevented. Safety and training gurus keep drumming on the need to cultivate a safety culture, and many shipping operators, for sure, are heeding the message. But it seems the roots of that culture aren’t spreading wider and deeper enough to become part of the very psyche of those who own the ships and those who man them.

Could the problem be that the shipping world has adopted a mechanical approach to the whole issue — too much emphasis laid on systems and procedures and too little on their why and wherefore? Are seafarers being made to undergo more and more training in the hope that they would behave in certain predictable ways like Pavlov’s dog? Doesn’t the culture of safety come back to the question of values? And aren’t those values being eroded by the commercialism that is gripping many by the neck — shipowners who cut corners to reduce costs, maritime schools that exist mainly for profit and seafarers who only want to earn a living but have no real love for the life at sea?

Whatever the answers, it’s time that the traditional approaches to marine safety issues were reviewed by the international regulators and the shipping community at large. Let us have, for instance, a more serious investigation into the psychological factors that contribute to marine accidents. What goes on in the mind of a seafarer who is about to commit a fatal mistake? Time, too, for values education being made part of seafarers’ education. And lastly, more shipping companies should adopt a rewards system to encourage greater safety consciousness and safety compliance. Pavlovian as it sounds, propagating a culture of safety requires both carrot and stick.

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