In recent months large oil majors have been promoting the idea of developing more resilient safety cultures. In our latest article organisational resilience is described as a company’s positive ability to adapt to the consequence of change, whether this change is initiated (caused) by market changes, innovation or even natural disasters.

Seen from a safety perspective – and on more specific terms – resilience is often described as the ability to bounce back and regain one’s original shape or condition. In safety terms, resilience is the organisation’s ability to adjust to ever changing environments so that work can continue to function in a safe manner. Resilient safety cultures bounce back from the dents and disturbances they encounter. Philosophically speaking resilient safety cultures remain stable in dynamic environments.

But seen from an organisational perspective what can a shipping company do in order to develop a higher degree of safety resilience? This article tries to provide the reader with a better idea of what can be done through the presentation of 4 basic principles.

Building resilience requires principles

Resilient safety cultures are detected within organisations that are coping well with changes or the unexpected and can prevent unpleasant surprises. But they also understand that resilience requires both an organisational and employee approach. Notwithstanding the fact that many organisations have clever people an organisation can, due to various reasons, still be dysfunctional.

Many organisations have clever people, however, the organisation can still be dysfunctional

Principle 1 – Employee accountability

A company’s safety performance is not something you can park on someone’s desk. Despite the fact that shipping companies have safety departments it doesn’t change the fact that all employees should be accountable towards safety. The goal of having safe operations is better achieved when job description boundaries are exceeded and employees look up from their workplace and realise how their decisions and work can impact other areas of the business. Every employee and department has a role to play and is therefore also accountable. This principle should at all times serve as an overriding principle and is also a prerequisite for the living of ‘Principle 2’.

Principle 2 – Integrate risk management ‘As early as possible’

It is easy to understand why crew on board vessels have to carry out risk management but among many shipping companies is it is still difficult to understand how office staff can contribute. The short answer to this question is that all employees – regardless of position and rank – make decisions that can have an impact on safety.

All departments have work processes and play an active part of the organisation’s value chain. To varying degrees they all influence the ‘end product’ – the final safety performance – but not all departments fully understand or are aware of how, when, where and what they influence.

When the talk falls on safety performance we often turn our attention to ‘the sharp end’ – the safety on board the vessel. For many good reasons we focus on the seafarers and their ability to work safely. But in many cases the resilience thinking begins long before the involvement of the seafarers. The principle is called ‘As early as possible’ and can best be described through specific examples integrating Risk Management into the equation, hence every department should ask themselves a number of questions during their tasks that represent their safety role.

All employees, regardless of position and rank, make decisions that can impact safety

The matrix *) at the end of the article gives you a number of example questions relevant for various departments in the company.

Principle 3 – Evaluate, assess, correct and improve

Having accurate knowledge and understanding (of i.e. the safety conditions and performance on board) is by many philosophers described as a function of a person’s belief and justification of this belief. The downside of this function is, though, that many people have strong beliefs but with a poor justification of facts. They claim to have a clear understanding/knowledge of what is true but when you start digging their belief (and therefore also their knowledge and understanding) turns out to be questionable. The fact that a person is not experiencing incidents or accidents doesn’t automatically mean that work is being performed in a safe manner; ‘I have never been hurt I therefore conclude that the way I go about my work is safe’.

However, the lack of incidents and accidents is known to trigger the reinforcement of the actual performance/behaviour (safe or unsafe) shown during this period of work. Potential poor safety performance doesn’t automatically result in incidents or accidents but will – if not understood – unfortunately result in a repetition or reinforcement of this behaviour. This could potentially lead to an increased likelihood of an incident or accident to happen.

A continuous questioning, evaluation and reflection of own and others’ safety performance is therefore a prerequisite to ensure a resilient safety culture. The keyword is performance debriefs and evaluations stimulating a process that will make people continuously discuss their safety performance and making corrections/improvements if assessed necessary. Performance debriefs and evaluations should be embedded in the company evaluation processes, and can take place during the following activities:

Individual evaluation

Feedback from superior and colleagues
Self-critical evaluation

Crew/team evaluation

Post-work debriefs
Crew Safety Diagnosis – Safety Delta (see
On board hazard hunts
Sign off safety surveys

Company evaluation

Yearly safety surveys
Safety Maturity Assessments
Crew sign off safety surveys
Continuous questioning, evaluation and reflection of the safety performance is a prerequisite to ensure a resilient safety culture

Principle 4 – Reinforce the good but manage the bad

The Danish researcher Erik Hollnagel is a great believer and advocate of focusing, discussing and highlighting what goes well rather than solely waiting to discuss the things that go wrong.

His main argument is that people at work most of the time don’t get hurt so why don’t we discuss how and why we manage to be safe? In short, his point is to reinforce the good but manage the bad. Find the positives and reinforce these during work.

Find the positives and reinforce these during work

*) This Principle 2 matrix exemplifies the questions that each department should ask themselves in order to become part of a safety resilient organisation:

Department Questions Comments
Marine HR – including training

  • During seafarer appraisal, to what degree is an evaluation of seafarer competencies carried out and what was the quality of this assessment?
Developing crew safety performance requires a proper and precise appraisal that evaluates crew safety performance.
  • During the promotion process of a Chief Officer, to what degree did the company give a clear description/evaluation of his safety performance and competencies?
A clear understanding of an officer’s safety competencies should be part of the promotion process.
  • Are safety training activities based on ‘off the shelf’ concepts or is it tailored to train seafarers as a result of specific seafarer needs and in accordance with a learning and development strategy?
Is the safety training carried out relevant? If it isn’t relevant it will not be effective.
  • During the induction of new seafarers, to what degree did a safety induction take place and what was the quality of this process?
If you don’t induct new seafarers to know what is expected from them safety wise how can you expect them to perform?
  • Are officers capable of providing on-going formal and informal feedback on crew safety performance and are they able to manage the development of seafarer safety competencies?
If officers feel uncomfortable and therefore reluctant to correct the safety errors of other crew members how can you expect them to perform?
Technical vessel management  

  • While on board vessels do technical superintendents get involved in any kind of risk management processes?
Genuine safety communicating, getting involved and showing the importance of risk management will stimulate crew understanding of its importance
  • After a job requiring a Permit to Work does technical vessel management get involved in the debriefing process?
Since technical vessel management manage a number of vessel debriefings could help pass on important learnings from other vessels
  • To what degree does technical vessel management integrate risk management as a natural part of their daily work together with the vessels?
Not integrating risk management in the daily work processes is equal to  communicating that risk management is of no importance

  • Do operations departments hold back known safety related concerns upon arrival to a port in order to avoid annoying discussions with a Captain?
If this is the fact the operations staff is hardly showing accountability towards safety but is definitely ‘stepping down’
  • To what degree do does the operation department coordinate activities with other departments to avoid crew fatigue?
Ship crews have many activities and an important objective is to avoid doing too much at one time. Operations departments have a large influence on the timing of activities.

  • Prior to the signing of a charter, to what degree does the chartering department ensure that the vessel is suitable for the voyage and cargo?
Far too many times other departments have to manage contracts where safety considerations were limited during the signing of the charter party
  • Prior to the signing of a charter party does the chartering department coordinate with departments regarding safety?
Using a vessel for a certain operation is more than just ensuring cargo in a cargo hold. Cargo compatibility is critical

  • While in the process of purchasing new safety shoes, to what degree will the purchase department investigate the quality of the shoes?
Since slips, trips and falls are the most common cause of personal injuries it is worth investigating prior to buying hundreds of pairs of shoes how ‘slip resistant’ they are through simple testing on board
  • Does the purchase department investigate the possibility of substituting dangerous chemicals with any other product that possesses the same properties but is less dangerous?
Why expose seafarers towards dangerous chemicals if these can be avoided through use of less dangerous chemicals?
  • After purchasing new personal safety equipment, for example, does the purchase department get involved in any evaluation of the perceived quality of this equipment?
Debriefing and evaluation of product or equipment usability is often not a parameter integrated in the daily work of a purchase department.
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Erik Green
Erik Green
Managing Director and Partner

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