What is safety culture?

“Everything to do with shipping has to have an element of safety culture," the MAIB's Steve Clinch told our recent Safety Culture at Sea event. So what is it?

SAFETY CULTURE 1safety culture saga pearl

“When even the master doesn’t bother to look out of the bridge windows when leaving port, you probably have a problem with your safety culture,” said Steve Clinch, chief inspector of marine accidents for the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB), in a presentation to the UK Chamber of Shipping’s recent Safety Culture at Sea event.

But what is “safety culture”?

This question was something that the event, which was held onboard the 'Saga Pearl II' on September 22-24, sought to define and how shipping companies might go about establishing or improving safety culture within their own organisations. 

Although the concept is not unique to the marine industry, the event was the first of its kind to bring together UK shipping companies to collaborate and discuss how best to establish a culture of safe operation.

“Safety culture is the attitudes, beliefs, perceptions and values that employees share in relation to safety in the workplace,” Clinch explained. “Everything to do with shipping has to have an element of safety culture.” 

In other words, it’s what makes people care about working safely. Without an effective safety culture, people don’t care about preventing accidents and simply deal with them as and when they happen. When safety culture is at its most effective, staff have a proactive attitude to working to ensure nobody gets hurt at work. It’s called a “culture” because it’s a collective concern for safety shared throughout an organisation at every level and it evolves as the business changes. 

Fostering a good safety culture, Clinch said, reduces risk and saves money. There are fewer accidents and maintenance can be performed more effectively and with less downtime. Management spends less time dealing with the fallout of accidents and can commit more time to growing the company, he continued. A change in culture can also benefit the workforce with better levels of motivation, staff retention and a more positive esprit de corps.

Clinch identified four main hallmarks of an effective safety culture:

  • Commitment from senior management to safety
  • Realistic procedures and shared ownership among the workforce
  • Continuous organisational learning
  • Shared concern for safety across the organisation.
Commitment from senior management is perhaps the most critical part of ensuring that an organisation’s safety culture works well.

Owners and managers are often blind to – or perhaps choose to ignore – inherent problems with their corporate safety culture, Clinch said. For instance, many companies represent that they have “robust” policies towards drink and drugs in the workplace, he continued, but accidents continue to happen due to alcohol and substance abuse. 

By way of example, Clinch cited the collision of the general cargo vessel 'Union Moon' with the ro-ro passenger ferry 'Stena Feronia'. Following the incident, which occurred just outside Belfast Harbour in March 2012, the master of 'Union Moon' was found to be more than two times over the drink-driving limit and could be heard on the VPR slurring his words. MAIB investigators found beer cans onboard, despite this being against the company policy of the ship’s management and operators. The evidence, in other words, was completely different to what was being espoused publicly.

Management has a responsibility to demonstrate the importance of safety culture and some companies have already taken steps to do so, Clinch said. One tanker operator already has a very proactive safety management system and produces a safety newsletter for its staff once a quarter. Another company is fostering safety culture following a serious marine casualty by developing a game to train staff.

"You need to create an environment where your staff are not afraid to say 'I’ve made a mistake'," Clinch told attendees.

Workshops led by experts from Shell, Maersk Tankers, Lloyd’s Register and Wightlink over the weekend drilled down further into how this may be done - look out for forthcoming articles on the UK Chamber's website soon.

  • Those who work for a UK Chamber member company can view videos from the event here. If you have not already received the presentations by email, please let us know.

safety culture forum banner