Braving the Human Element in Safety

By Rich DeSimone, President, XL Insurance, US Ocean & Inland Marine
Friday, November 04, 2011

The maritime industry is notorious for braving the elements.   One element however — the human one — poses greater safety risk than rough seas or gale-force winds and is requiring more companies to take an aggressive approach in emphasizing every employee’s role in their risk management efforts.   While maritime companies have developed technologically sophisticated hull designs, stability systems, propulsion systems, and navigational equipment, overall the industry’s safety record could be better.  It is undoubtedly one of the world’s most risky and complex industries.  And as such, it requires very attentive focus on safety and risk management issues, especially in light of the economic and workforce issues facing the industry today.  Despite the various and sometimes hostile natural elements through which those in the maritime industry  navigate on a daily basis, human error is the most frequent cause of maritime accidents, attributable to more than three quarters of all incidents.  Globally, the industry employs some 1.2 million seafarers, who perform strenuous work for long hours under extremely difficult conditions.  The current global economy, high crew turnovers, job security concerns and a host of employment concerns place an additional toll on seafarers.  Resulting fatigue and stress, strain performance and contribute to inattentiveness which results in mistakes with dangerous consequences. 
Today the maritime talent pool is presenting added challenges.  A shortage of experienced seafarers has been a well publicized and ongoing problem. Today’s new ships have outpaced the development of qualified seafarers to safely guide them.   The economic downturn may have resulted in some loss of qualified seafarers to onshore jobs, leaving behind an even greater shortage of talent.  But like many professions, there are certain perceptions about the industry that make it difficult to attract new talent.  A constant flow of new talent is vital to the industry.  While it takes only a year or two to build a new vessel, it takes as many as eight years to produce a qualified seafarer and much longer to cultivate an experienced officer. 
Every human error that was made was determined to be a necessary condition for the accident. That means that if just one of those human errors had not occurred, the chain of events would have been broken, and the accident would not have happened. Therefore, if we can find ways to prevent some of these human errors, or at least increase the probability that such errors will be noticed and corrected, the industry can achieve greater safety and fewer casualties. Skilled and experienced crews are essential to the successful and safe operation of today’s hi-tech vessels and play a valuable role in protecting a business’ profitability.  The time and attention invested in providing a safe work environment protects people, company assets and operations, and the environment against risks to injury, loss or damage.  A strong safety culture assures that business activities are fully compliant — if not exceeding — all legal and regulatory requirements. 

Clear Link
Some companies are quick to see a very direct link to strong safety measures and their overall performance.  In fact, one maritime industry CEO starts every one of his earnings calls with a report on his company’s safety record for the quarter.  Safety and a company’s financial health are tied that closely.    Safety is not just about trips or falls. It’s about performing well and physically performing well often translate to stronger financial performance – aided by fewer workers compensation insurance claims, lost days of work, etc.   Additionally, one misstep may not only significantly harm a company’s bottom line, but its reputation – something that can be tough to recover from. Employees need to know the importance of the role they play in ensuring a safe workplace, by demonstrating the right attitude toward safety  and consistently following safety rules and procedures.  Given the nature of the work required of them, instilling a safety culture throughout the organization is an ongoing imperative in the marine industry –only partly dictated by government regulation and insurance carrier requirements.  Insurance carriers look closely at safety records and a marine client who shows complacency, especially when incidents may be a clear indication that corrective actions need to be taken, can be deemed a less than desirable risk.
Accidents are opportunities to learn and make corrective actions.  The goal in safety, however, is to learn without having to experience the repercussions of a mishap.   Safety is best implemented when top management believes in a safety philosophy, and a written safety policy is created based on the company's philosophy. The safety policy should communicate to all levels of employees that management supports a safety philosophy and is committed to employee and community safety. When supported by management, a written policy establishes the idea of safety as an important part of operations regardless of the type of industry and employee's job responsibilities. In light of some of the industry challenges, marine insurers are more than willing to work closely with their clients to suggest prequalified safety consultants, to review safety manuals, to assist in setting up employee training or to perform safety audits, among other services offered.  Today, safety training is particularly essential as the industry replenishes its talent pool.  In addition, those who oversee and regulate waterborne trade in the U. S. are acutely aware of the hazards facing operators. The U. S. Coast Guard takes the matter so seriously that in the very near future they will be implementing a safety management system that will apply to all operators in domestic trade.   To minimize human error and maximize human performance, safety needs be more than a pile of procedures and checklists. Safety is said to be learning without experience.  As more maritime companies provide the right learning opportunities, they help improve the crews’ qualifications and in turn, boost their own company performance along the way.

(As published in the October 2011 edition of Maritime Reporter + Engineering News -

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