In recent years, the term “safety culture” has been widely used by all manner of maritime industry people wishing to emphasise that the avoidance of accidents is a very serious aim which depends as much on attitudes as it does on regulation and procedure. It is, however, something of an amorphous term, which as often as not, suggests an aspiration, rather than an achievement.

It also is a very relevant complaint (usually emanating from those on the receiving end) that a company sometimes seeks to measure the success of its drive toward better safety by the sheer weight of its prescriptions, procedures and the regulations which it issues. While these may be obeyed, the “culture” may not be changed from one of weary resentment at the increased bureaucracy imposed in the name of safety, but which operational people may well consider self-defeating. Others, of course, are more successful at safety improvements, recognising the role of inspired leadership in management at all levels, but chiefly from the top.

But what do we really mean by “safety culture”? A paper submitted by Australia to the IMO Sub-Committee on Human Element, Training and Watchkeeping for its first session this month tells us of some interesting research being undertaken in that country to assess “the determinants” of a safety culture in shipping.

The three year project, to be undertaken by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and the universities of Queensland and Western Australia, will focus on the predictors and outcomes of a safety culture on board ships and hopefully gain a better understanding of what works best in safety-related policies, regulations, training and practice. It is perhaps unsurprising that it is being informed by work that has been done in the aviation industry.

It is interesting to note that a small pilot study which has been undertaken in Australia seems to indicate that senior officers aboard ships consider that accidents and incidents tend to occur because of individual failings of knowledge, skill or motivation and that organisational factors play less significant a role. Accidents happen, it is inferred, because of “human error” with people ignoring rules and procedures.

As for why this happens, the small sample of officers suggested that commercial pressures, driven by the need for economy and efficiency, sometimes forced seafarers to operate at or beyond the limits of safety. The research will, among other tasks, seek to validate or refute this suggestion, by collecting qualitative and quantitative data through interviews and surveys.

Data will be collected from regulators, ship owners and operators, senior ships’ officers and seafarers and it is hoped that flag states will assist in the data gathering through questionnaires surveys and interviews. The work began last year and will conclude in 2016, when it is anticipated that it will be possible to produce recommendations about training, work design and practice, procedures, policies and regulations and a better idea of how to assess and improve safety-related behaviour. If there is a better understanding of what we mean by “safety culture” it will clearly be very worthwhile.

Author: The Watchkeeper                         Source: BIMCO