When it comes to safety, shipping is very heavily regulated indeed. It is one thing having rules and systems, but are they being applied and checked well enough? What happens if seafarers try to speak out and raise concerns?
Working at sea is tough – even on good ships, surrounded by good colleagues and working for a good company. The demands and the hardships are clear – and as a minimum those demands include time away from home, and often challenging work, in tough conditions.
For those without support, camaraderie, and recognition, the voyages become harder still – and it can lead to not just safety issues, but mental, wellness and fatigue too.
The rules are clear – there is a heavy responsibility borne by all parts of the chain. Ship owners need to act, and so too do those onboard. But what they should do and can do, can sometimes be unclear.
Also, what happens when things are not done properly – what can seafarers do to raise their concerns, and to flag issues? Much is made of “whistleblowing” for environmental issues, but this seldom seems to apply for safety.
Whistleblowing is officially defined as, “making a disclosure that is in the public interest”. It will usually occur when an employee discloses to a public body – usually law enforcement or a regulatory body – that their employer is partaking in unlawful practices.
In the USA, whistleblowers are seen as key to prosecution efforts in cases of environment crime. More than half of all MARPOL cases occur as a result of crewmembers alerting US authorities about illegal discharges or false records.
According to a special provision in the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships (33 U.S.C, Section 1908 a), individuals involved in reporting a violation that leads to a conviction are eligible to receive up to half of the fine incurred by the company.
Seafarers who report MARPOL crimes can earn a fortune, but that can also be a problem too. There are accusations of seafarers being prompted not by a willingness to do good, but by shyster lawyers.
Speaking out when things are wrong is good – but what if it isn’t related to the environment and the ship isn’t in the US? Does the whistleblowing concept work then?
Well – no. What is needed is good reporting, but also a positive relationship between ship owners and the seafarers onboard. Lest we forget, very often crews are employed via third parties, and work with a safety management system from a second party, and may have very little – if any – interaction with the owners.
The chains of relationships, responsibility, and accountability are extremely stretched. So if seafarers speak out, will they be heard, listened too, respected and their fears acted upon?
If seafarers speak out will they be safe from recriminations and reprisals? Bullying and vendettas can break out on vessels, while seafarers can sometimes find themselves unofficially “black listed” from employment. The risks of raising an issue can cause problems.
So what can be done to encourage and develop a real and functioning safety system, one that delivers for all? With so many maritime accidents being seemingly caused by the “human element”, it seems clear that seafarers are likely to be causing accidents because they have inherited certain traits causing them to be more accident prone. Even if systems are good – then if people are learning to work in the wrong ways, then accidents will follow.
There are three key problems in developing a safety culture – the first is that blame has to be avoided. So there should not be a culture which applies direct blame or responsibility for accidents and incidents.
The second part of the equation: external factors. With 100 percent of the focus on employees’ end actions, external factors such as safety management, engineering controls, communication and best practices training may be ignored. So it is vital that the view of safety take all these parts into account – the people, the equipment, environment and the ways they are being told to work.
The third issue is reporting – the communication of problems. How do companies generate proper reports? If incentives are used, employees are rewarded for hitting the company quota on injury rates or days without incidents, then there is a direct temptation not to report.
A safety culture is the end result of combined individual and group efforts toward values, attitudes, goals and proficiency. Everyone has a part in keeping themselves and others safe.
So what are the tips to start building a strong safety culture onboard and within the company:
1) Define safety responsibilities: Everyone shares the burden and knows what they are meant to do, when and how…and what response to give if something goes wrong.
2) Shared safety vision: Everyone should know and accept the safety vision, and have a shared culture. No-one wants to die or see their colleagues killed or injured, so this should be relatively straightforward to develop.
3) Enforce accountability: Everyone is accountable for being visibly involved. There can be no short cuts, or smart ways to avoid safety.
4) Provide reporting options: Companies need feedback and reports on concerns or issues, so there should be innovative and working options for seafarers to use.
5) Report, report, report: Educate employees on the importance of reporting injuries, first aids and near misses. No reports does not necessarily mean safety, it could mean a failing reporting system!
6) Strong investigation system: Seafarers need to have faith in the investigation process – so it needs to be thorough, supportive and deliver positive results.
7) Build trust: Building trust will help everyone work together to see improvements.
8) Celebrate success: Where seafarers have invested time, effort and their resources to positively tackle safety, then this needs to be recognised, celebrated and supported.
What do you think about safety reporting? Should there be flag State Whistleblower schemes for safety breaches, or is a positive culture more important?