What characterises a proactive safety culture? This is a question often discussed and it is a question the maritime industry is continuously trying to comprehend. Recently Green-Jakobsen has been involved in several debates on the difference between ‘Learning from incidents’ versus ‘Learning before an incident’.

At Green-Jakobsen our aim is always to build a ‘Learning before an incident’ safety culture, but what are the characteristics of this safety culture and shouldn’t we still learn from incidents? To deal with this question, this article will try to walk the reader through the ideas and beliefs of Green-Jakobsen as we continuously intend to play our part in this on-going and important debate. The starting point for us is thinking.

Our mental processes (thinking) while at work

In Copenhagen where Green-Jakobsen’s main office is situated, cycling is the preferred means of transportation. Unfortunately, cyclists are also the most potential traffic victims and the cause of accidents is often that cyclists are overseen by car drivers. In order to increase both cyclist and car driver awareness of how to avoid accidents a safety campaign is presently being rolled out called ‘Spend 2 seconds more’ The idea behind this campaign is obvious – 2 more seconds of thinking, looking up, to orientate yourself to understand what is going on around you – can save lives.

Controlling a situation rather than just responding to it after it has happened requires that we think differently and think ahead. Human thinking leads to perceptions that again can lead to action and behaviour. The way we think is, in other words, decisive for our successes and failures. Our way of thinking can both help us and let us down but seen from a safety perspective, how do we ensure that our thinking helps rather than letting us down? To approach an answer to this question, a dissecting of the concept of thinking is needed, but first another question.

How often, in our professional and personal life, when things go wrong, have we heard the explanation: ‘I wasn’t thinking clearly!’ or ‘I have never really thought about it this way before’ or ‘It didn’t cross my mind’ or even ‘I see know that I should have given it more thought’ Common for all these statements is that they imply a lack of thinking prior to an event – that the person could have done more (thinking). But how can we claim that we didn’t think? Afterall, during our everyday life we continuously have thoughts about a million of things.

The focus should therefore not be on whether we think or not (we do think) but instead on the way we think and to what degree our thinking helps us make the right decisions. A ‘certain way of thinking’ is in other words an essential part of being proactive. But what kind of thinking is it that we could/should show and how can this understanding be translated into something practical on board? Human thinking is definitely a concept most of us can talk about, but the question is, what type of thinking can be defined as proactive and thereby support our proactive actions.

The focus should be on the way we think and to what degree our thinking helps us make the right decisions

Proactive thinking is to seek new understanding

A concept introduced to the tanker industry is Reflective Learning but not many know that the ‘creator’ of this concept was the American Philosopher John Dewey. In addition, and as shown in the table below, Dewey also defined various levels of human thinking. It highlights what thinking is needed in order to achieve a proactive safety culture (Controlling a situation rather than just responding to it after it has happened), but it also indicates that most of our thinking is a response to an occurred event and often lacks a conscious and focused process.

Levels of thinking Consciousness versus justification Description
1. Random thoughts Unconscious
Everyday thinking without any focus as we go along
Random thoughts are our everyday thinking journey where one random thought follows the other. Our thinking takes us nowhere and everywhere and we hardly notice where we are going. We can be sitting in a train looking out the window and our thoughts are unconscious, pushed and dragged in whatever direction our surroundings and state of mind takes us. Often, we find it difficult to remember what we have been thinking about – we just follow a path of thinking that just happens.
2. Concluding thoughts without justification Conscious thinking but without checking the validity of the conclusions made As we go along with our random thoughts, things happen, and we stop to reflect. While looking out of the train window we might see, smell, hear or feel something and we start wondering about the event we have experienced. We become consciously aware of what is happening, and we try to figure out what to about it and conclude. However, at this level of thinking we often jump to quick conclusions based on prejudice rather than on facts. Our conclusions come quick and without any kind of proper assurance of validity – they are in other words without justification.
3. Concluding thoughts with justification Given – Justified conclusion achieved as a result of conscious thinking after a negative incident – Reactive thinking From time to time we are exposed to events we understand we can’t deal with lightly and we know that we need to investigate the event properly. The event was ‘given’ to us and we know that we have to ‘work around’ the event. To understand what happened we have to dig into it, listen to others’ observations, test the validity of conclusions and observations, look at it from e.g. a cultural, technical or human angle. We consciously map out the event, structure it, go back and check our preliminary conclusions, try to understand the root course, etc. etc. Our objective is to understand what happened and try to learn from it. Our thinking is conscious, and we try to justify our conclusions but since these are triggered by an event forcing us to think, the thinking is reactive.
Sought – Justified conclusion achieved as a result of conscious thinking before a negative incident – Proactive thinking The final level of thinking is a conscious thinking process where we continuously discuss what is going on and seek to learn before being exposed to a negative incident. People showing this level of thinking acknowledge that the understanding of a situation, condition or context is never complete. Surroundings, environments, people, conditions and states of mind change as quickly as the blink of an eye. They therefore continuously discuss their experiences, observations, conclusions thoughts and actions to seek new learnings before a negative incident forces them to think. This fundamental belief is materialised in a behaviour where people understand the importance of continuously thinking about the way we perform our work.


As it can be derived from John Dewey’s ‘thinking thoughts’, the only level of thinking defined as being proactive is when we consciously seek to learn before an event and the actions we make are justified through some level of analytic thinking. The problem with this way of thinking is that it requires energy and mental processing – something we are not always capable of doing.

The only level of thinking defined as being proactive is when we consciously seek to learn before an event and the actions me make are justified through some level of analytic thinking

As described in an earlier article posted here at the GJ Academy (Embed and sustain your safety performance initiatives) we spoke about ensuring effective mind-controls. In the same manner we have to understand, when wanting to ensure proactive thinking, what effective mind-controls to apply.

The application of proactive thinking – focus on your ‘Safety Lifestyle’

Many people today try to live their life in accordance with proven ideas and principles that will help them live a life free or sickness and diseases. We try to take proactive and precautionary measures believed to have a positive impact on our health and thereby hope to live a long and good life. There are of course no guarantees but continuous research within this field of work provides us with numerous examples of lifestyles that helps increase the probability of living a long and healthy life.

The same goes for being safe while at work. We can reduce the probability of getting hurt through the living of a proactive safety lifestyle. But just like life in general we must continuously remind ourselves or evaluate how healthy our (safety) lifestyle really is in order to make corrections to get us ‘back on track’.

Therefore, if we are to follow and apply the thoughts of John Dewey, how do we develop our ability to think in a proactive manner about our safety lifestyles? The short (and incomplete) answer is to: Think about our ‘Safety lifestyle’ (Behaviour) and apply a critical and reflective mind-set.

Examples of questions helping to think about safety lifestyles

To understand this principle better let’s try to use an example: A number of crew members are situated on the forecastle involved in a mooring or tugboat operation. The operation in principle went well (no one was hurt) but did we apply the best possible safety lifestyle? After finalising the operation, the crew perform a debrief asking themselves the following two questions – they think and seek a new and better understanding of what really happened:

What should we do more of next time?
What should we stop doing next time?
They think and seek a new and better understanding of what really happened

After a short talk (3-5 minutes), they agree as follows:

The officer in charge found the crew’s on-going communication helped him keep an overview of the situation – Keeping on doing this supports the officers’ leadership of the situation.
At a certain moment one of the crew members started making jokes and ‘messing around’ which caused loss of situational awareness and understanding – stop doing.
An AB found it difficult to hear the officer’s orders and mistakenly positioned himself at a wrong place and had to be corrected – Speak louder.

The behavioural changes they agree to make are triggered by proactive thinking and a safety lifestyle that acknowledges the importance of continuous reflection, evaluation and improvement before anything goes wrong. Thinking is no longer just random thoughts without any validation. They are sought and the conclusions made help to assess, discuss and adjust safety lifestyles.

Need help?

Contact us for personal advice

Erik Green
Erik Green
Managing Director and Partner

Would you like us to call you?

Follow the flow of inspiration - Subscribe to GJ Academy
Thank you for your Subscription