Improving safety culture

Improving safety culture

Adam Foster

Adam Foster · 06 June 2019


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For years, the shipping industry has focused on regulations and procedures to improve safety. Yet, shipping is still at risk of major accidents. The whole industry needs to change its focus. Ticking boxes never made anyone safer. Also, conducting culture assessments by using valid and reliable survey instruments can help to improve safety – Dr Torkel Soma, Partner and Principal Consultant at Propel.

Shipping still has a long way to go in terms of improving its safety record. Over the last 10 years, there have been more than 2,500 safety-related incidents every year, and the fatal accident rate has been 20 times higher than for the average industry. So why is today’s approach not working, and what can be done about it?


In shipping, the general approach to ‘being safe’ typically consists of three strategies – avoid failures by doing it right in the first place, manage threats and failures when they occur (before they escalate), and be prepared to handle critical situations.

Research shows that most shipping companies only focus on the first and third strategy, but often overlook the second, which is managing threats and failures when they occur.

Industry blind spot

Also, experience shows that if failures are not handled properly, they may develop into critical situations and accidents. This is a blind spot because the biased focus on doing it right makes people reluctant to be open about their failures, concerns and mistakes. It is important that these three strategies are interlinked and must be combined.

Given that today’s approach to preventing ship accidents is geared towards the first of these strategies - do it right in the first place – we at Propel think shipping companies, and the whole industry, needs to change its focus.

Thousands of auditors and inspectors across the world are engaged by classification societies, flag and port state authorities, vetting, insurance and HSEQ departments. They verify that ships do the right thing and comply with technical and procedural requirements. However, ticking boxes never made anyone safer.

Cover-up culture

Also, worryingly, there is a cover-up culture causing errors and unsafe practices. There are now so many procedures and checklists that, in some cases, it is impossible to comply with all of them. The fear of failure is driving accident statistics and surveys reveal that 45% of seafarers admit that they break procedures on a regular basis.

I firmly believe that human factors are key to prevent threats and failures from escalating. Yet improving safety or performance is not only about improving individuals but also improving collaboration between sea and shore staff, between officers and crew and between different nationalities and cultures on board ships.

Huge potential to reduce accidents

Although this is recognized, it is not always addressed so I believe a new approach is necessary to improve collaboration and reduce risks. Indeed, collaboration is strongly correlated with the risk of accidents and business interruption. Based on working with a large number of projects over the years, experience shows that it is possible to reduce major accident risk by up to 75%.

However, to improve collaboration and implement behavioral changes is no quick fix, through, for instance, training courses. Changing culture is key and that process takes time. To help operators improve their approach to safety, proven methodologies must be used.

Safety leadership behaviours

Put simply, it involves observing and identifying working methods on board and then working with all the officers and crew in teams and as individuals to deliver the eight-point safety leadership behaviours, namely:

  • Giving feedback
  • Speaking up
  • Building trust
  • Creating openness
  • Showing care
  • Facilitate learning
  • Promoting teamwork
  • Managing dilemmas

Experience shows that the focus on the eight behaviours work because they address the blind spot (manage threats and failures when they occur). By encouraging the participants to openly share errors, failures and concerns, they are able to break the chain of events that can lead up to a major accident. Also, this approach helps to move beyond the culture of punishment to the positive safety-enhancing culture where crew members help each other.

Culture assessments key to improving safety

Conducting culture assessments and the use of a valid and reliable survey instrument is also key to addressing the organizational culture. In a recent review of safety culture instruments, only 3 of 43 instruments were valid. There is not one single test alone that can demonstrate the validity of a survey instrument. But there are many qualitative and quantitative tests that can be made to verify its validity.

The basic one is content validity. This dictates how well a safety instrument addresses a safety issue. It specifies that the survey instrument adequately covers the topic being studied as well as having sound scientific grounds and references.

This is important because so many historical examples show risks that were identified well ahead of time, but were not addressed. These include the Deepwater Horizon blowout, which claimed 11 lives and caused huge environmental damage, rig personnel had knowingly by-passed safety barriers. In this case, failures were identified but the root cause of the problem – i.e. human neglect, whether cultural or circumstantial – was not factored in.

Reliability of the survey instrument is also key and that is ensured statistically by use of data. Factor-analysis is a statistical method used to describe variability among correlated items in terms of a potentially lower number of unobserved variables, called factors. For our instrument, the eight factors are equal to the eight SAYFR leadership behaviours (8SLBs) mentioned above.

Moreover, predictive validity is the instrument’s ability to predict something in the future such as an event, or correlations with instrument measurements made by other instruments. If an organization scores low in terms of the 8SLBs, it is a good indicator of future problems. This has been shown on a number of occasions when departments, units or suborganizations have received low 8SLB scores only to have accidents occur in the intervening time, before action was taken.

Reduction in the frequency of serious accidents

Predictive validity can also be applied to solutions. When action was taken based upon a low 8SLBs score, a shipping company experienced a 60% reduction in the frequency of serious accidents, to a level which was maintained five years subsequent to the investigation.

Concurrent validity and construct validity are also important elements. Concurrent validity measures the correlation between two independent measurements performed at the same time. An increase in the ability to manage failures, for example, will necessarily correlate with the number of incidents that occur.

Construct validity is when a theoretical model of cause and effect – for example, do the improvements prescribed following appraisal of the 8SLBs – accurately replicate the real-world scenarios they are intended to represent? Construct validity is the ultimate validity measurement, and necessarily incorporates all other validity factors.

In short, what we at Propel see with the best shipowners and operators is a proactive organisational culture that goes beyond ticking the ‘compliance boxes’ and rather applies a collaborative, trusting approach from top to bottom in the company organisation. This also includes conducting culture assessments by using valid and reliable survey instruments. This is what really makes an impact in improving safety.

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