Human failure affecting shipping safety performance

31 mai 2017
by: Stuart Brewer, Communication Consultant

Data from maritime safety specialist Propel shows huge potential to reduce risk of serious accidents. “Human failure tops the agenda of many companies though few know how to address it in a proper way. Collaboration, trust and engagement of all personnel -ship and shore- are vital to reduce major accidents. The whole industry needs to change its focus when it comes to improving maritime safety,” says Benedikte Wentworth CEO of Propel.

According to Propel, despite the continuing downward trend in total vessel losses, the frequency of major casualties continues to be an issue with marine risks growing both in size and complexity, a fact corroborated by the International Union of Marine Insurance.

“The frequency of major accidents has reduced when you look back over the past decade. This may mislead us to believe that the risk of major accidents is also reduced. On the contrary, as ship sizes and complexities of operations increase, the risk of major accidents has increased due to higher potential consequences,” says Benedikte Wentworth, CEO of Propel.

Much needed paradigm shift

Technology, training and regulations had all helped to cut losses over the years, added Wentworth but human failure is once again at the top of the agenda of large global corporations, including the oil majors. She believes this focus will trigger a much needed paradigm shift in the industry approach to safety, potentially threatening the business models of the dominant providers of safety services, including class societies, flag state control, port state control and vetting schemes.

“On a typical day in shipping 3 seafarers are killed, 30 persons injured, every other day a ship is lost and USD 8 million paid out in insurance claims. This is a major concern for people working in the industry, for cargo owners, shipowners and insurers,” points out Wentworth and adds, “Propel’s mission is to advance this paradigm shift by leveraging unique insights and proven alternative methodology, including new 3D training simulation solutions.”

In Wentworth’s opinion, companies in high risk industries that “operate safely” typically apply a mix of three strategies:– 1) avoid failures by doing it right in the first place, 2) manage threats and failures when they occur (before they escalate), and 3) be prepared to handle critical situations.

Wentworth and her colleagues at Propel reckon many shipping companies mostly focus on the first and third strategy, but often overlook the second, which is managing threats and failures when they occur.

Industry blind spot

“Failures will occur, it is just a matter of time. If failures are not handled properly, they may develop into critical situations and accidents. This has become an industry blind spot because the biased focus on doing it right makes people reluctant to be open about their failures, concerns and mistakes. Our findings show that in most ship accidents, failures were already known by the crew prior to the accident, but were not addressed and corrected. The three strategies are interlinked and they must be combined,” Wentworth maintains.

“The doing it right in the first place approach can be exemplified by the implementation of the ISM code when the saying was: Write down the right way to do a task, do what you write and prove it.

And we do a lot to “prove it”. In fact, every second minute a safety inspection or audit is completed in shipping. Thousands of auditors and inspectors across the world are engaged by classification societies, flag and port state authorities, vetting, insurance and HSEQ departments. They verify that ships do the right thing and comply with technical and procedural requirements. However, ticking boxes never made anyone safer.”

Cover-up culture

Torkel Soma, partner and senior consultant at Propel adds, “We have created an industry of ‘cover-ups’. There are now so many procedures that, in some cases, it is impossible to comply with all of them. Our insight from surveys involving thousands of seafarers on an anonymous basis is that 45% admit that they break procedures on a regular basis. At the same time, seafarers are afraid of being caught breaking the procedures and, intentionally or not, cover-up their non-compliance and mistakes.”

He continues, “Furthermore, most shipping companies support such a practice by sending on board pre-inspection task forces to ensure that everything is in place prior to an inspection. As a result, safety audits and inspections are becoming like beauty contests where it is the best make-up artist that wins the prize. We need to get back to the initial important purpose; to prevent disasters at any time, not just during the inspections. In fact, our measurement of organizational maturity of handling failures shows that 50% of ships in the global fleet have developed a ’cover-up’ culture.”

“To put it succinctly, the maritime safety regimes are funded upon distrust and there is a need to bring trust back to reduce major accidents,” adds Soma.

Collaboration key

Wentworth sees people as key to prevent threats and failures from escalating. However, she believes improving safety or performance is not only about improving individuals but also improving collaboration. She suggests that the shipping industry could learn from the aviation industry where transformation towards a more collaborative and open culture started 20 years ago by implementing what is called ‘threat and error management’.

“Some major shipping companies have taken the step to adopt policies and practices that go beyond the requirements of the management systems and include strategies previously pioneered in other industries, such as the airline industry. We welcome such moves and believe such practices, coupled with technological improvements, will trickle down the shipping industry where safety is paramount,” says Wentworth.

Huge potential to reduce accidents

Propel’s unique insight comes from working on more than 700 improvement and change cases and unique data gathered from more than 30,000 respondents according to Didrik Svendsen, partner and senior consultant at Propel. “Our data shows a potential to reduce the risk of serious accidents and business interruptions by 75% on 75% of the world fleet,” claims Svendsen and adds, “Our alternative methodology has been tested and proven over the past five years and helps companies to deal effectively with human failures.”

Step-change in seafarer training

Commenting on Propel’s new digital training models, Svendsen says, “we have developed, together with Attensi, unique 3D simulation models to scale insights and to practice new ways of thinking as regards safety behaviour. The interactive models have the potential to be truly transformative, not only in the classroom but also on board. Built on the concept of gamification, the idea is to create an environment where reality and simulation merge to create valuable training scenarios with the added element of motivational competition, achievement, recognition and learning analysis.”

Svendsen believes the solution represents a step-change in seafarer training and will become increasingly important. “Some owners are already seeing the value of digitalisation, also when it comes to crew training. As a leading example, "K" Line LNG Shipping (UK) shares our concern relating to the need to focus on managing failures, and we are pleased that they are taking the lead on this important issue. They have already started implementing the solution in officer seminars and will start training onboard in June.”

Management commitment

While recognising that such new technologies can lead to a new era in interactive training and accelerate maritime safety culture development, Svendsen is quick to point out that the adoption of such models requires commitment from both management and seafarers.

“What we do see with the best shipowners and operators is a proactive safety culture, going beyond ticking the ‘compliance boxes’ and rather applying a collaborative approach from top to bottom in the company organisation,” says Svendsen and concludes, “ We strongly believe in safety cultures that focus on collaboration and trust. This is what really makes an impact in improving safety.”

For more information contact:
Benedikte H. Wentworth, Managing Director,
Communication Consultant, Stuart Brewer, mobile: