Feature: The good, the bad and the ugly
Wasting time and money on safety campaigns when every last cent has to be watched in one of the worst recessions in shipping might seem a perverse way of running a business. That, however, is what it seems some companies are doing, as their audience has already been convinced that the safety messages are simply empty rhetoric or “flummery”, according to a new survey of attitudes to safety in shipping.
The audience, composed of staff at sea and ashore, take their cue not from the campaign’s words but the regular, day-to-day decisions of the company that affect the health, safety and welfare of their ships and crews.
The fresh concern that has been raised about the impact of the recession on the safety of shipping is unlikely to be allayed by the survey’s findings of the mismatch between the rhetoric and the reality that continues to exist in some companies.
In the report from Cardiff University’s Seafarers International Research Centre (SIRC), in conjunction with Lloyd’s Register Educational Trust, seafarers – from Ordinary Seamen to Masters – and shoreside managers express their views, backed by anecdotes, on how safety within their particular companies is handled.
The interviewees were drawn from five carefully chosen companies representing different types of trade, of varying sizes and corporate structures and covering both coastal and deep-sea operations. Two operate in the oil and oil products trades (one a coastal trade specialist), two primarily in container shipping and one in dry bulk (aggregates). Two are described as large companies, two as medium and one as small.
Some of the views and incidents portrayed will echo others’ experiences and, while similar findings could be drawn from other industries, the unique nature of shipping – managing mobile assets and equally mobile personnel – in commercial and physical environments that are often hostile makes safety management a particularly difficult challenge.
The company that emerges with the most credit is small and family-owned and one whose crews say they are made to feel part of the family. Size is not, of course, the defining factor in safety as some of the largest shipping companies also have the best safety records. Smaller companies also face the problem of managing the increasing regulatory burden, although some, like the one represented in the report, seem to manage.
The large company operating in oil and oil products trades appeared to their sea-based personnel to put the interests of customers such as charterers first. “Large clients could exert considerable influence which translated into heavy pressure passed onto Captains – always by telephone – from shoreside staff,” the SIRC researchers were told.
A different priority appears to have been at work of one of the companies in container shipping. Here some of its seafarers believed the emphasis was on meeting regulatory requirements and ensuring paperwork was in place “to protect the corporation in the event of any mishap”.
Instances of “symbolically significant” penny-pinching are quoted by seafarers as examples of what they perceived as the real attitude to both safety and their own welfare. A refusal to reimburse minor expenses incurred while travelling to join a ship rankles, a decision to reduce the number of engineers or to employ East Europeans with a poor command of English creates discontent and authorising an equipment test only after the Master had pointed out the possibly dire consequences of failing an inspection, including the incarceration of a superintendent, in the US fosters cynicism.
In the report* – the latest in a series examining how perceptions of risk can vary under the influence of a range of factors, from cultural background to type of ship involved – one of the litmus tests of the companies’ attitudes to safety is the response to a request from a ship for an unscheduled stop to allow fatigued crew to rest.
The small, family-owned company typically agrees almost unquestioningly to such a request, according to the quoted testimony of one of its Masters. Another company is portrayed as less sympathetic to such requests, with the report citing an incident in which a Master who, having delayed pre-voyage bunkering for eight hours to allow the crew to rest, was never seen again after signing off at the next port. If there was a message, it was not lost on the others.
Similarly, another company’s attitude to fatigue was perceived by its seagoing staff as delegating responsibility to the ship itself. While seeming to acknowledge the workload on shipboard personnel had increased in recent years – mainly through new regulatory paperwork – management ashore had failed to make extra staff available and believed “fatigue management”, i.e. ensuring hours-of-work rules were not broken, was achievable by those on board. Again, the message in this case was that any delay to the ship should be avoidable.
How attitudes to safety are perceived can be determined more by such actions than the regular supply of safety advice in the form of standing orders, posters and videos, although these do not go wholly unappreciated. Similarly, the two-way communication advocated by some to enable seafarers to bring to management’s attention their own safety concerns does not work, the report notes, when everything from the ship has to go via the Master.
In the report’s conclusion the authors say companies can spend considerable time and money conveying their safety message but then undermine that effort by their daily actions. Seafarers may see a poster or watch a video on safety but the true message comes across clearer and louder through what their bosses actually do.
While no blinding insights or new ways of approaching a familiar subject are provided by the report, it does serve to remind everyone of a problem that refuses to go away. The question it ultimately raises is whether this latest portrait will make any difference and, if not, suggests the only response is reluctant acceptance that there will always be the good, the bad and the ugly.
* “Exploring differences in perceptions of risk and its management amongst personnel directly associated with the operation of ships”