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Getting real about risk and shipping’s ‘safety culture’

Getting real about risk and shipping’s ‘safety culture’

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), along with researchers at the Universities of Queensland and Western Australia, has commenced a three year project to discover what makes a “safety culture” in the shipping industry. During this period they will hopefully interview all manner of seafarers, ship operators and management, regulators and anyone else who might have useful ideas about why accidents happen, and what organisations need to do to make them stop.

One might think that we would have a good handle on “safety culture” by now, bearing in mind that it is such a well-used phrase. We certainly know what it is not; people ashore driving people afloat barmy, with great wads of regulatory requirements and procedures, generally treating them like idiots and attempting to micromanage their every action, using every available means of modern communication.

It is generally assumed that this desirable state of safety culture can be achieved only when attitude and motivation are aligned with training and experience, with ship and shore respecting each others’ responsibilities and professionalism. In short, it means recognising the importance of the human element, so it is appropriate that the Australian research was announced at the recent first session of the IMO’s new Sub-Committee of Human Element, Training and Watchkeeping.

Will a better understanding of safety culture make shipping safer? The Australians began their research with a small pilot project, which discovered some worrying views from senior officers about commercial pressures, and people being forced to do unsafe things to save time and money. That much was probably predictable, although some empirical evidence supporting such a view, will be required to initiate any changes.

Rather more reality about risk and the current costs of getting things wrong, it has been suggested by marine professionals, could act as a powerful driver for a general “cultural” change in attitudes to safety. It has sometimes been alleged that ship operators play a percentage game in their operations, secure in the knowledge that the overwhelming majority of ships accomplish their voyages safely. As for the others, this, it has been occasionally admitted, is the justification for insurance!

But when casualties happen, the consequences are greater now than ever before, as is evidenced by some recent losses. The Costa Concordia is likely to cost her insurers more than $2bn, while the smallish container ship Rena, stranded on the New Zealand coast, will probably have racked up the best part of $400m before the last items of wreckage are removed. The cost of the MOL Comfort’s total loss – the biggest container ship to be lost with its entire cargo, is likely to top $1bn, while all pale into insignificance besides the staggering sums BP lost in the disastrous Macondo spill, where the numbers are still ticking away. Lives lost and reputations ruined should not be described as collateral losses, but it is what they tend to be, amid these massive financial losses.

Recognising the realities of current risk would be admitting the often unrealistic expectations of people such as charterers directing the conduct of ships, assuming authority over the master, but without taking any responsibility. It might also be recognising that the schedules demanded by shippers and those down the logistics chain, are also unrealistic and take insufficient account of weather, and operations afloat in an unpredictable and hostile environment.

A genuine safety culture might encourage the traditional seafaring virtues of prudence and caution and the value of experience, with more generosity in manning, and more leeway in practical ship operations. But like any shift in culture, it will take an enormous effort.

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