Safety culture means safety and commerce can coexist

In this guest blog, Colin Gillespie from the North of England P&I Association highlights the factors that can cause difficulties in implementing safety culture.

Crew sling

Establishing a positive safety culture within an organisation is easy in theory. Picture the scene: the company’s CEO begins by making a statement that “safety is the way we do business going forward”. A mission statement around the company’s Safety Vision is written. Stretch targets for key performance indicators (KPIs) are created, with goals of very low numbers or zero incidents. A communication programme with all employees is carried out, detailing the Safety Vision. A comprehensive safety management system (SMS) is produced or is updated. Staff are trained in systems and procedures that are important to safety. Finally, safety culture flourishes in the company.

Maybe?

The reality is that safety culture can be likened to a rare orchid – delicate, hard to grow and in need of constant tending and nurturing in the face of a harsh environment. This article discusses some of the elements that contribute to difficulties implementing safety culture.

Safety and commerce

Safety and commerce do not tend to coexist easily. It’s a big step for a company to fully commit to safety as their way of business. Commercial pressures around costs, vessel schedules and so on will inevitably put pressure on the commitment to safety. Individuals or departments within a company may occasionally respond to these pressures by making exceptions prioritising commerce over safety. This can be corrosive to a safety culture as employees may perceive that the company is not really committed to safety as its way of business. This may negatively influence their safety behaviour and have knock-on effects throughout the organisation. These behaviours can be particularly destructive if a safety culture programme has recently started.

Societal expectations

Safety failings are also allowed to continue by societal expectations of shipping – society has zero tolerance for airline accidents but shipping accidents are routinely accepted. This undoubtedly has an impact on the attitudes to safety within shipping and negatively impacts an industry approach to safety culture.

The nearest equivalent in shipping to this zero-tolerance attitude is the tanker sector. Tanker operators are required to operate safely by their commercial partners. In the case of the tanker industry, this zero-tolerance attitude from the customer means that safety and commerce go hand in hand and it’s no coincidence that this sector operates more safely than other sectors.

Human nature and communication

Human nature does not necessarily lend itself to safe behaviour. Enclosed space accidents are a good example of this – often those involved are experienced, usually they are aware of the potential risks in the space and are aware of the entry procedures. But still they enter. What motivates this clearly unsafe behaviour? Is it complacency – “I’ve done it before and it was OK”? Or time pressure – “Got to get the job done so we can load”? Because surely they are not thinking “I will put my life in danger today”?

Training can help this situation, but what it points to is the need for unsafe behaviours to be challenged at all times and become unacceptable at all levels within companies. This requires a culture of open communication – something else that is difficult to achieve in a hierarchical company structure and that can often be complicated by cultural preferences.

Safety management systems

Safety management systems (SMS) can be overly long and complex in their use of language. This can make them difficult to use.  To some extent, SMSs are a victim of their own success. They have been an extremely effective tool with which companies and seafarers can manage their vessels and this has led to their growth. Documentation can often run to hundreds of pages and tens of thousands of words – too much for anyone to easily digest.

If a system is difficult to use this leads to workarounds and/or procedures being ignored. Recently, a number of companies have taken steps to start rewriting and restructuring their SMS with a focus on making them accessible to the end user i.e. the seafarer. This is something we at North P&I refer to as ‘sensible systems’.

Responsibility

The custodians of safety, the designated person ashore (DPA) and others in the HSQE department, tend to be highly capable and competent on the technical aspects of running a ship and its associated SMS and PMS. But usually they will lack any formal training in human behaviours. Naturally, this means that most will favour a technical or mechanical approach to safety – seeing safety as part of system that can be fixed. If something goes wrong, the incident is analysed and very often procedural changes will be made to put more barriers in place to prevent recurrence. But very often the analysis of the human side of things amounts to ‘failure to follow procedures’ or the even less helpful ‘human error’.   It is rare that questions are asked of the individuals involved as to why they behaved as they did. Such questioning can be invaluable in supporting a safety culture.

There are many other brakes on safety culture, including the highly fragmented nature of the industry and the nature of and pressures on seafarer employment.

All of these factors combined mean that for an individual company to be successful in nurturing a safety culture through to maturity, they must be highly committed to developing the safety culture across the whole organisation and very mindful of the difficulties that can hamper their efforts.

The key factor in all of this is the people. In order for safety culture to flourish, companies must balance a systems approach to safety management with a person-centric approach to safety management.  Over time, with care and with hard work this can develop into a safety culture which allows safer, incident-free (or at least incident-light) and more efficient operations.

So perhaps safety and commerce can coexist easily after all? Safety culture is the key.


North P&I are kindly sponsoring the UK Chamber's upcoming 'Safety Culture in progress: a year on' event on the 17th & 18th September.