Safety is Business-Critical

Safety is becoming more and more business-critical in shipping. The likelihood of experiencing serious groundings, collisions, and contact accidents is steadily rising.

The direct costs of such an accident are twice as high today compared to only five years ago. More important, however, is the fact that accidents can seriously damage a corporate reputation, something that is a key element in attracting and retaining both business and human resources. Put plainly – if you aspire to be successful, it is best to make safety a top priority in the years to come.

High Accidental Losses

Statistics show that the frequency of serious collisions, contact accidents, and groundings has increased significantly in the last five years. The industry is experiencing a situation where yards are fully booked, where expensive clean-up and wreck removal is becoming more extensively used, and the value of the USD is at a historic low. As a result, both shipping companies and insurance companies have to pay relatively more when paying for repairs and clean-up (figure 1).

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A Bonanza

While it is evident that we have entered a period where more serious navigational accidents are occurring, there has also been a bonanza in the world economy in general, and in shipping in particular. In this respect, the industry has seen intense demand for shipping that has resulted in high fleet utilisation, a boom in new building, and large profits. The industry has also witnessed the arrival of a range of new companies, mergers and acquisitions, while at the same time crew and officers have also had an opportunity to increase their earnings. Predictably, this bonanza in the growth of shipping demand has brought about increased demand for both manpower and higher wages (figure 2).

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Reduced “Sea Experience”

Shipping is a compliance-driven industry that strives to keep up with new challenges instead of being on top of them. This has resulted in the improper implementation of operational best practices and reduced appeal in terms of attracting new employees. Some companies have experienced that more than 80 per cent of their employees quit within one year, and almost all companies have experienced higher staff turnover, a phenomenon that allows for steeper career paths. Today, a navigational officer can attain the rank of captain with only one third of the sea experience that was required only a few years ago.

A Mindset for Safety

A typical statement often heard from a safety manager today is this: “we have an excellent safety management system, but for some reason our people don’t always follow our procedures and that causes accidents”. People often mix safety with compliance, which is a misunderstanding. Safety does not consist of the procedures you have, but rather how and why you actually do things. In this respect, safety depends on a shared mindset. Navigation teams are quite literally a textbook example of the shared mindset. Less experience does not only reduce individual skills and knowledge but, even more importantly, it dilutes the shared mindset.

Organisational Accidents

Navigational accidents are usually the result of cases involving many people operating at different levels within their respective companies. In this respect such accidents are of an organisational character. In contrast, individual accidents are ones in which a specific person or group is often both the cause and the victim. These types of accidents can, for example, be fall and cut injuries. The consequences for the people concerned may be great in individual accidents, but their range is limited. Organisational accidents, on the other hand, can have devastating effects on uninvolved populations, valuable assets, and the environment.

Human & Organisational Factors

A century of research into accidents reveals that most incidents involve an aspect of the human element. We also know that humans by nature are prone to make mistakes, act in error, and take compromising shortcuts. This has been an accepted fact for years in the airline industry, but not so much in the maritime industry, at least not until recently. Research has shown that an airline pilot makes an average of 4.9 errors per hour, but still this industry is among the safest in the world. Such findings imply that many organisations handle errors when they occur, and thus do not only concentrate on prevention. In this respect, we need to focus on how to develop organisations and systems that do not allow errors to escalate into incidents. This entails having a holistic view of human and organisational factors. Through human and organisational factors we address how technology, people, rules, and an organisation interact as one system. 

Organisational Drivers

Any operation in a company is bound by certain operational limits (figure 4). There is a natural limit for economic expectations, and breaking this limit can easily result in a budget deficit for the company in question. Another area bound by limitations is the workload. Breaking this limit will result in fatigued employees. Yet another area of limitation is the safety limit of the whole operation. Surpassing this limit will not only induce one accident but a whole series of accidents. Within all of these limits there is an area in which the company can operate safely, efficiently, and under a manageable workload. Every organisation should continuously strive to optimise their operations and in so doing, will move continuously within the borders of these limitations. It is the organisational drivers in every organisation that are responsible for maintaining such continuous shifts. 

Within every organisation, there are drivers that are responsible for the economy. They should ensure that operations are always carried out as efficiently and cost effective as possible. However, economic goals can quickly come into conflict with safety goals.

A typical argument for an officer to hear can be: “why can’t you use that (unsafe) port when we had five ships there last month?” Then there are those who are responsible for reducing workloads and who should ensure that employees are not fatigued. A typical example here is the postponement of particular exercises and familiarisation training. Finally, there are those who are responsible for continuity in the improvement of system safety; the culture of safety (figure 4).

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Corporate Culture is Key

The safety mindset depends very much on corporate leadership. Top-level management readily needs to demonstrate its commitment and work with the entire organisation to achieve these goals. All corporate divisions and levels of manpower must be involved to ensure
that the benefits of safety do actually work, and to understand that they have both the responsibility for safety and the power to influence events. Through doing so, the risk to business is significantly reduced. Practical projects demonstrate that improving a shared safety mindset results in fewer accidents, less off-hire, reduced costs, and a better reputation in the marketplace (figure 3). 

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1. Jun. 2008