Put safety first and make it last

Paul Gunton

Paul Gunton · 10 September 2020


Down the road from where I live is a building site where a huge new house is under construction. I am amazed each time I walk past that I have not yet seen an ambulance pull up outside.

During the months since work started, I have never seen a single hard hat, safety harness or hi-vis jacket. As work nears completion, roofers clamber along their thin battens with nothing to break their fall should they miss their footing. It is an accident waiting to happen.

Accident at sea

When it is finished, this will be home for the building firm’s managing director and he is often on site, so this situation must reflect the safety culture across his organisation. And not just his: many of the people I see each day are subcontractors, so they and their employers must share similar safety standards.

But who am I to criticise? I once edited a magazine dedicated to maritime safety and read countless accident reports about people who did not take precautions in a potentially dangerous situation and came a cropper, many of them from slips, trips and falls. Yet seven years ago, and despite those regular reminders, I did not check the stability of a ladder I was using: minutes later it dumped me onto my driveway and into an operating theatre where some Meccano was inserted into my left foot.

It was with these experiences in mind that I attended a webinar this week (7 September) about maritime safety culture, hosted by the UK Chamber of Shipping. One of its speakers was Jennifer Webster, occupational psychologist at the UK’s Health & Safety Executive (HSE) and she gave a more positive example. The 2012 London Olympic Games were the first games to have suffered no fatalities during either construction or decommissioning, she said. This was achieved by strict safety policies and she described an incident she witnessed when the driver of a ‘cherry-picker’ was found to be working without a ‘banksman’ to guide its operations. “He was immediately taken off the site,” she said.


Why do we take risks? We are familiar with the expression ‘risk-averse’ but as individuals and companies, we seem to have an in-built aversion to safety and need to be encouraged and supported to behave otherwise.

Phil Moss, marine superintendent at Bibby Marine, is implementing a new safety culture at the company and has his own painful memories to spur him on. He told the webinar’s listeners of an incident at sea and he and two other crew were attending to a mooring line. The stopper began to slip and he attempted to get another turn round the bits but before he could secure the line, it ran away.

Unfortunately, he was standing in a bight of the line – “exactly what they tell you not to do on your first trip” – and was lifted off his feet. His flailing boots shattered the forearm of one of the other crewmembers and he ended up concussed and bleeding. Despite all his training, “my personal appreciation of risk failed” he said.

That made him reassess his view of what made a good seaman. Traditionally, he said, it has been about being innovative and finding practical solutions to difficult problems but he realised that “being a good seafarer comes predominantly from working safely” and that “safety doesn’t automatically follow on from seamanship.”

He and the other speakers acknowledged the impact that the ISM Code has had on encouraging safe management practices. Pav Hart-Premkumar, human element policy specialist at the UK’s, Maritime & Coastguard Agency, reminded us that this had emerged from the enquiry into the Herald of Free Enterprise capsize in 1987, which cost 193 lives.

Many years later, I had a colleague who had been on Herald’s bridge as the ship went over. I recognised his name from a book about the disaster and asked him about his experience, but he would not speak about that dreadful night and never returned to sea.

For Phil Moss, the ISM Code is incomplete. Although it “gave us a safer job, better procedures [and] better training,” it says very little about “people [and] how they behave, what they believe in, how they engage in safety and trust throughout the organisation,” he said. Its procedures are certainly being followed, but “it didn’t really do anything to develop ownership” of a safety culture.

Now he is fixing that for Bibby Marine Management, which was set up in November 2016 to manage OSVs and walk-to-work vessels owned by Bibby Marine Services, which was founded a year earlier. Both are part of the long-established Bibby Marine group.

Adjusting to a ‘just’ culture

His focus is on creating what he termed a ‘just’ safety culture. This is different from the ‘no-blame’ culture that had been widely welcomed as a replacement for previous ‘blame’ cultures but he believes that the ‘no blame’ culture “obviously wasn’t really fit for purpose either”

There will always be accidents, despite regulations, procedures and engineering, so Phil’s emphasis is on people and to encourage them “that safety is achievable, even after negative events.” His approach is to give them resources and support “and empower them to intervene, speak up [and] make suggestions in an open and trusting environment.” In this way, he said, a safety culture evolves “and we bring our accident rate down further.”

Ms Hart-Premkumar also acknowledged that accidents will always happen and said that the MCA’s human factors team had identified 12 recurring themes in the accidents it investigates. There are the usual ones, such as fatigue, but “culture and local practices come up again and again,” she said. It is not enough to have good people; if the system is bad, “you’ll still get bad results,” she said. In a good system, “mistakes can be made, but accidents might not happen as a result of them.”

She summed it up with what I found a memorable viewpoint: does a company’s safety culture set people up to succeed? It is a cliché to say that someone has been set up to fail, but the idea of framing a culture to achieve the reverse was new to me. “That means that safety culture has to be more holistic,” she said.

Not that this is a new idea – she reminded us of the famous quote from the Herald of Free Enterprise inquiry which found that “from top to bottom, the body corporate was infected with the disease of sloppiness” – but the fact that this is a point that needs to be made decades later shows there is still work to be done to reduce accidents further.

Climate change

Ms Webster added a new expression to my vocabulary: ‘safety climate’. This is different from ‘safety culture’ because it takes account of what employees think about their employer’s safety culture. She showed us some survey results that demonstrated that senior managers have a higher assessment of their organisation’s safety culture than supervisors who in turn have a higher assessment than other employees.

And she put her finger on one reason for this: a lot of information never reaches senior management because “people can be very afraid about putting their heads up and saying ‘I think we’ve got a problem here’,” she said.

Is that the case in your organisation? How do you respond to safety concerns and near-misses (or ‘near-hits’, as one speaker correctly called them)? Safety culture must start from the top and be embedded in every part of a company’s processes, Ms Hart-Premkumar reminded us.

I offer my local building site as an example of an organisation where a lack of safety culture starts from the top, but also of something else, which was not raised during the webinar: if I were commissioning a new house, I would not invite that builder to quote.

I am sure I am not the only passer-by to be worried by his lack of safety measures so I invite you to consider the impression your own safety culture leaves in the minds of potential customers and business partners: are they safe in your hands?

  • What have you done, or are doing, in your company to assess or improve its safety culture? Email me now with your views.
The Journal

Published every February the journal is now recognised as the highest quality publication that covers all aspects of maritime technology and regulation and a must read for the industry.

More Details

What's Trending in 2020