A major new study by the Seafarers International Research Centre (SIRC) reveals that while all shipping operators pay lip service to the importance of safety, only a few are actually making it a priority in their day-to-day operation. Even worse, shipping operators do not even realize that they are actually penalizing employees who show initiative in this area. The SIRC study examined company safety pronouncements against onboard reality. The results were disappointing – and rather worrisome.

The researchers found that while shipping operators made sure that risk management was part of the crew orientation and training (expending company resources to maintain dedicated safety committees and produce promotional safety materials), many employees believed that this was merely window dressing. The management’s “true colors” belied what they really valued most: cost savings over safety. For example, engineers in a large container shipping company were criticized for fatigue-related delays after a major repair job while in port—while said engineers realized that the job required accuracy and clear-headed thinking, it would appear that the management did not share the same sentiments. In another instance, a master was actually dismissed because he delayed the bunkering of his vessel due to crew fatigue.

It is a serious issue that should be looked at critically; an SIRC analysis of more than 300 accident investigation reports over a 10- year period within the UK, US and New Zealand showed that one in three accidents at sea are caused by factors that are beyond the seafarers’ control or decision. Inadequate risk management was found to be the most frequent contributory factor in many accidents, while fatigue counted as the second most significant factor in grounding accidents.

Aside from underestimating the significance of crew fatigue,there are other ways through which shipping operators chip away at the safety parameters they themselves have set. An outcome-oriented culture has led many seafarers to be reluctant in challenging unsafe behavior when they encounter it onboard, especially if such breaches are committed by a superior. Even in meetings, there is a marked hesitance when it comes to raising safety concerns, for fear of being unfairly identified as a troublemaker. This attitude is especially common among crew who are serving on ‘per voyage’ contracts. One master voiced his concern over a management decision which would save time on repair work at the next port, but also compromised the watertight integrity of the engine room. The said master was told that he was being ‘obstructive’.

While seafarers might not always express their disapproval to their employers, it was well-demonstrated that they were nevertheless aware of the different shortcuts being taken in behalf of cost-cutting. For example, seafarer respondents from one company bemoaned the decision to hire eastern European seafarers with poor English language skills simply because they were willing to work for lower pay even though their communicative limitations pose a safety risk. Vessels owned by another company were manned by a 2nd engineer supported by a 3rd engineer, because the management did not want to pay two 2nd engineers as dictated by industry standards. Even seemingly trivial opportunities such as providing refreshments to joining or leaving crews did not escape seafarers’ scrutiny—penny-pinching in such circumstances were perceived to be indicative of the company’s real attitude towards its human assets.

SIRC Director Helen Sampson explains that even big companies who invest in safety and risk management can find themselves lacking in key areas. Despite sophisticated safety management systems and teams dedicated to health and safety issues, shipping operators still manage to undermine their own policies by making decisions which raise risks onboard. Apparently, there’s a big difference between top-down messages

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