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Helm turns safety focus on support vessels

Helm turns safety focus on support vessels
A new independent report published on World Maritime Day 2015 looks set to test regulator assumptions on safety drawn from the wider maritime industry against the realities of workboat and OSV operations.

‘The Impact of Crew Engagement and Organizational Culture on Maritime Safety in the Workboats and OSV Sectors’ is a new report whose concentration on the safety of the support vessels serving the maritime industry appears to be unique.

Commissioned by operations and maintenance management software specialist Helm Operations, the report summarizes six months of intensive research. Its findings are expected to offer a strong, sector-specific indication of what behaviors companies and their crews need to improve or curb. It will also make a series of recommendations to encourage safer workboat and OSV operating practices.

Despite the inherently risky nature of their work, many workboats are not bound by SOLAS or the International Safety Management (ISM) Code.

Helm’s reference list includes some of the world’s leading shipowner practitioners of best practice, including Crowley Marine Services, Svitzer, SMIT, Seabulk and Seaspan. Its operational software “takes cues from the stakeholders who are typically ignored in the software development process,” says Helm Operations ceo and founder Ron deBruyne.  

Previewing some of the report’s more startling findings, Helm suggests that 50% of crews working on OSVs say that safety standards have been compromised because it is difficult to say ‘no’ to clients or senior management. Nearly 80% appear to accept that commercial pressures could influence safe working practices. The report also draws on Port State Control (PSC) data to note that 27% of OSV deficiencies relate to certification and documentation shortcomings.

Published on 24 September – World Maritime Day – the report is authored by Fathom Maritime Intelligence and Southampton Solent University. It draws on original analysis of PSC records, feedback from offshore company employees, incident case studies, and industry guidance from recognized leaders on best practice.

“In an ideal world, regulators could take on a greater role in sharing best practices across the industries they regulate, because they see the best and the worst,” says deBruyne. “If their job is to ensure safer operations of the vessels they regulate, then why can’t they share what some companies are doing well?

“This report should be considered a major contribution to knowledge in the industry, highlighting the link between the human element and safety performance in this distinct sector. We were not able to discover any similar study with a focus on workboats and the effect that organizational culture has on safety outcomes. The qualitative surveys done with participants from across the offshore industry is original, and respondents were quite forthcoming with their answers.”

Detention rates amongst commercial vessels from the Paris MOU and Tokyo MOU actually show OSVs and tugs performing well when compared to cargo ships, says deBruyne. “So they are already doing a very good job ensuring that they are operating safely – relative to the industry.”

But safety “does not actually have a finishing line”, he adds. To operate safely should not be thought of in terms of a dollar figure, because an incident can be very costly for an organization based on injuries and damage of reputation.

“The report seems to show that safety statistics are so highly valued by operators now that there may be pressure not to report an incident. If incidents are not being reported then the safety statistics cannot be realistic, and it is possible that safety is not as good in reality as the statistics would suggest.”

While most companies do a good job of promoting safety in their organizations, deBruyne believes many crew members feel that they cannot be forthcoming in identifying an issue for fear of reprisals, which generally take the form of loss of work for them personally. “Lack of empowerment is still something our industry needs to come to grips with,” he says.

This view is supported by the report’s finding that, even though 84% of respondents felt backed up by management when reporting a safety issue, almost half acknowledged that safety standards have been compromised due to the difficulty to say ‘no’ to clients or senior management.

“There is disconnect there,” deBruyne says. “The same disconnect appears in the fact that nearly 100% of respondents felt they had undergone adequate training to do their job safely, but 34% said their company needed to offer additional training specific to operational duties and certain technical items of equipment.”

Beyond raising awareness, the Helm ceo believes the new report will provide a benchmark against which industry players can measure themselves. “After all, you cannot manage what you do not measure.” He hopes it will highlight the need to encourage crews to report concerns.

Software provider Helm, which was acquired by ClassNK last year, is currently rolling out its new safety and maintenance management package Helm CONNECT, initially to address the US Coastguard’s new ‘Subchapter M’ regulation. Subchapter M, due for publication before the end of 2015, will introduce a new inspection regime across the US towing industry. DeBruyne says that 80% of the Subchapter M regulations relate to vessel maintenance.

Leading inland waterway operators Louisiana International Marine and Magnolia Fleet are already confirmed as Helm CONNECT customers as well as commercial marine operators from the harbour services, offshore, passenger, and fishing industries. “We have been working with mainstream clients who want to have processes in place and fully up to speed to ensure that compliance is not an issue,” says deBruyne. “All we can do is make the tool they use as easy as possible, so it can help them be better at what they do. I feel that we are on the right path because our software is built primarily for crews and engineers.”

However, in the context of the new safety report, he emphasises: “If anything, the report has demonstrated to us that software is just a tool. People are what make this industry work.”

In fact, the report comes with eight recommendations for better industry practice, looking to enhance communication, empowerment of employees, feedback systems, mutual trust, problem identification, promotion of safety, responsiveness, and safety awareness.

“When you look at what those terms mean, you can take away some real learning,” deBruyne says. “For example, the homogenization of safety procedures across different regions and operations within a company is key for strengthening a safety culture. Despite the fact some of the incidents analysed in this report were primarily caused by equipment failure, the analysis confirmed that the lack of safety culture still contributed to accident causation. The lack of execution of vessel safety checks and non-adherence with safety procedures were a common theme across the case studies.”

Further analysis is needed on how operators can report on incidents and accidents without detriment, deBruyne says. If crew sometimes feel that they cannot report near misses for fear of making the captain look bad, so too do operators as a whole. “This is not helping the industry improve its performance.”

“We measure our own culture here at Helm, and the results always give us a strong indication of what behaviors we need to improve on – and which ones to reduce, in order to have a better functioning, more innovative organization,” deBruyne concludes.