What we can Learn from the Shipping Industry about Safety Culture

29, May 2020 | Blog

The coronavirus outbreak brought a lot of anxiety but also shows us how we are interconnected. It seems like no place on earth is safe other than our own four walls. In this situation of crisis, we realize how important safety and security are and how they are at the core of what we can do to save ourselves, our fellow citizens, and the economy.

When it comes to safety and security, I’ve gotten a lot of experience working in the maritime sector. To ship goods or passengers is a no-brainer today. Many companies can operate vessels, trucks, busses, cars etc.

But the magic in any logistics company is to deliver safely from A to B with respect for the environment, customers, and the crew. Safety is a promise and a license to operate. Companies invest billions to make sure to be prepared and ensure all the certifications, as well as safety management systems, are intact. That is why I wanted to share with you my insights on safety culture in the shipping industry and how we can all learn from them during and after corona.

Safety is a key feature of any shipping business

We all need a license to drive. But any big vehicle needs to be vetted and authorized for departure or shipment. In some cases, even blessed by a rabbi, but that is a different story.

I used to work in the shipping industry.

I used to buy and supply vessels with critical shipping spares. Without them, vessels could not sail or might not even be allowed to depart the port. Docking in the port would cost around $5000 a day. Together with captains, chief engineers, superintendents we would find cost-efficient solutions to deliver within the time frame.

But while we were sitting in an office, organizing the logistics, the seafarers were out on the water. Ships are used to operate in unsafe environments. They have a guideline called ISPS — International Ship and Port Facility Security Code — which serves as a comprehensive set of measures to enhance the security of ships and port facilities. It was compiled after the 9/11 attacks by the IMO (International Maritime Organization). Because of it, ship crews and companies know how to stay safe and how to operate in light of health threats, natural disasters, wars, pirating etc.

Seafarers know how to handle a lockdown

Seafarers are used to “lockdown” in critical situations and shipping companies know how to manage this. So as my captain colleague Allan Moritzen says: “It is actually easier for us in the shipping industry to adapt to the situation during coronavirus. This crisis also gives us a better understanding of the necessity to follow the instructions of authorities.”

However, as great of an idea rules and regulations are, many of them are being violated in regards to safety culture, and many end up with fatal or health damage beyond repair.

Many seafarers are merely treated as bus drivers.

The truth is that rules and regulations are only as good as the work and safety culture they are in. During my time in the maritime sector, I realized that many seafarers were merely treated as bus drivers. With the ethnic difference between Russian, Philipino, or Baltic seafarers and Danish logistic officers at the safe coast, there was a divide.

Which is why it was so important that we branded our vessels as “floating office”. This inclusive wordage and culture made people feel part of a larger team. The reason why some seafarers did not follow the regulations was not so much about them needing to be changed but that there were all kinds of prevailing social norms and habits of all employees that needed to be addressed. Educating one another and sharing experiences is key in making vessels safer. There needs to be a bigger investment in safety culture which would avoid people using their common sense.

It takes time to change a culture and mindset

Laws change the culture but it takes time and effort to change the mindset to fully be safe and create a workplace culture that shares the responsibility of all personnel, both onboard and on the shore.

When we want to foster a diverse and inclusive mindset, it is a similar journey. But as my experiences show, both safety culture and diversity culture need to be embedded in the organization. I am so happy to have been able to do much more than purchase but bring seafarers closer to the office and establish a shared intercultural understanding of safety even if it was a short time.

We can’t build separate cultures in one company’s culture which is why it’s so important to have a mindset of rebuilding, inclusivity, and resilience of company culture. Together, we need to not just think about one group, instead, we need to create organizations that are geared towards sustainability and the well-being of their employees.

By unlocking our internal biases we can build a shared understanding to maneuver in the right direction with an inclusive mindset.

I want to take my hat off to all the seafarers who are fighters during COVID. Many of them can’t leave the ships for crew changes which means that they’ve been unable to see their families. They are just as inspirational as doctors or other people in the front line and deserve our attention.

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