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Talking With the Experts About Maritime Safety Culture - What is it And How to Improve It?

Posted to Maritime Training Issues with Murray Goldberg (by on September 2, 2013

"Safety Culture" is one of those terms that is used a lot in the maritime industry. But how many of us can define it? What exactly is it? How do you know if you have it? This article discusses the basics of safety culture and then concludes with an interview of Captain John Wright, an award-winning maritime safety culture expert.

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Talking With the Experts About Maritime Safety Culture - What is it And How to Improve It

"Safety Culture" is one of those terms that is used a lot in the maritime industry. We all think it is important, and every operator wants a "good" safety culture. But how many of us can define it? What exactly is it? How do you know if you have it? How does one get it, and keep it once it is there? This is the first of a pair of articles looking at safety culture in the maritime industry.

This first article begins with an overview of safety culture and then concludes by introducing Captain John Wright, an award-winning maritime safety culture expert. The second article focuses on a discussion of safety culture with Captain Wright. If you would like to be notified when that second article is available and have not already done so, please sign up here to receive maritime training article notifications.

What is Safety Culture?

The IMO tells us "An organization with a 'safety culture' is one that gives appropriate priority to safety and realizes that safety has to be managed like other areas of the business. ... The key to achieving that safety culture is in:

  • Recognizing that accidents are preventable through following correct procedure and established best practice,
  • Constantly thinking about safety, and
  • Seeking continuous improvement."

This is a fair way of beginning to look at safety culture, but is arguably limited. Despite the way it is often spoken about, safety culture is not something that a vessel operator either has or does not have. All operators have *some* safety culture. Or, put another way, all operators have a company culture, and their culture (whatever form it takes) impacts safety of operations. I say it this way because it is important to understand that all aspects of a company's culture are related. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to have an excellent and effective safety culture but a poor culture (for example) in terms of workplace cleanliness, employee communication or employee engagement. The question therefore involves both the quality of the company’s overall culture in general and of their safety culture in particular; how does the existing culture affect the activities of company management and employees (from the top to the bottom)? Is it a culture that enables, promotes and rewards safe acts?  

We will look at safety culture requirements and indicators shortly. However, when discussing safety culture transformation, the first concern often heard is that it is difficult and slow to change a company culture. Let’s address the “slow” part right now.

But Cultures Are Slow to Change - Aren't They?

Before looking at some of the basics of a high-quality safety culture and then moving on to the interview with John Wright, let's first address this issue of the speed of culture change. The truth is that cultures of any kind in the workplace are slow to change. This does not mean they can't be changed - they most certainly can (and I have seen it first hand at BC Ferries and elsewhere - more on that below). But it takes time and real commitment. Having said that, the return on investment is enormous.

The fact that it takes some time is both a drawback and a benefit. In the way that a company culture represents "the way we do things around here", we know that existing operations and procedures influence subsequent operations and procedures. People behave in the way they are taught to behave by their peers and by what seems to be socially acceptable in their environment. In the same way that graffiti begets more graffiti (and clean walls beget more clean walls), unsafe practices beget further unsafe practices, and attention to safety begets further attention to safety. So the job of culture change is to get the ball rolling. At first, you will be fighting to establish a "new normal", and that takes real effort because you are going against the established cultural norm. But once you are over the initial period, safe operations and a safe culture feed on themselves. Safety becomes "just the way we do things around here".

So what are the requirements for a high quality safety culture?

Some Basics About Safety Culture

One of the best one-line definitions I have seen on safety culture is the following:

"Doing things safely even when no one is looking"

Perhaps calling this a definition is incorrect - it is better described as the result of a high quality safety culture - what every operator is looking to achieve. So how do we get to this desired result? What are the accepted characteristics, or necessary components, of a quality safety culture? I will list some of the most important below, but will cover these in more depth in the discussion with John Wright that follows. Briefly, the necessary components of a quality safety culture include the following.

Management Leadership

It is generally agreed that safety must start at the top. In fact, some organizational culture experts go so far as to say that "... the only real thing of importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture" (Organizational Culture and Leadership, Schien, 2004). Management must view safety as a long-term investment in their company, not a cost. It is their role to consistently and visibly inspire and enable a culture of safety. It is also their role to be safety cultural champions, to identify other champions, and to steward the process of cultural transformation. This usually means going well beyond compliance and always means considering safety as a part of all decisions while allocating sufficient resources to safety considerations.

Building an effective safety culture is not a switch that can be "turned on", but rather a sea change, or broad transformation that takes time to nurture. And even if management commits themselves to establishing a high quality safety culture, it still takes time to implement the necessary changes, and even more time for employees to be convinced that this is a real, lasting change and not a fad soon to be abandoned. This management commitment takes real effort, but pays incredible dividends. Without strong, consistent and long-term leadership from the top, it is not possible to improve the quality of an organization's safety culture.


Clearly, safe operations require that all operational personnel are competent, understand & are skilled in safe procedures, and are aware of potential hazards & how to avoid them. This is the job of initial and ongoing training. Attention to training not only guarantees the above, but it also sends a strong message that management values safety and, consequently, values its employees. An employee who feels valued and values him or herself is one who *will* do the right thing - even when no one is looking.

Fortunately, we are in a time of great opportunity for implementation of new, effective and visible training programs. If training is not already top-notch at an organization then it can be made so  using a breadth of new educational content and techniques. And while a large budget never hurts, it does not have to be expensive (see "The Human Element on a Budget" here, here and here). Twenty years of conclusive research and experience have shown that blended (on-line and in-person) instructor-led and independent training yields better results than traditional training. Given the importance of training, the benefits of investing in it, and the visible nature of its effects, attention to training is almost universally considered to be a necessary component of safety culture transformation.

Measurement and Continuous Improvement

As I have written several times in earlier articles, "If you don't measure it, you can't manage it". A high quality safety culture is one that requires measurement of safety performance. It uses those measurements as markers (key performance indicators or KPIs) to inform a process of continuous improvement. Without a system of measurement there is no way to learn from mistakes, nor any way to celebrate or build on successes. Measurements (and ongoing communication of those measurements) are a key form of employee communication and a powerful demonstration of management leadership in the area of safety.

A Focus on Learning, Not Blame

Every day there are "close calls" or "near misses" that represent incredible learning opportunities. An accident is a very expensive way to learn a lesson. A close call is a practically free way - but only if the close call is reported, analysed, turned into a learning opportunity, and made public. The problem, of course, is that near-misses are almost never reported, especially in the absence of more than a few witnesses, because those at fault fear repercussions. The way around this problem is to have a policy ensuring that employees are not punished for these near misses.

Many refer to this as a "blame-free" culture, but I have been taught by my work with BC Ferries that perhaps a better goal is a "Just" or "Fair" culture when it comes to blame - not one that is blame-free. Paraphrasing the BC Ferries approach, an employee will never be blamed for an honest mistake or error in judgement. They will be held responsible however should they come to work intoxicated, or should they wilfully cause damage, for example. At BC Ferries this policy, as part of their huge cultural shift, has created an environment where an employee has no reason to conceal a near miss. This has yielded thousands of documented learning opportunities through their so-called "A.L.E.R.T" (All Learning Events Reported Today) incident reporting process. At the same time serious injuries have been reduced by two-thirds and continue to decrease. After speaking with front-line BC Ferries employees, it is fair to say that many view documenting their own near-misses as a point of pride; knowing the report will help avoid a future accident, injury or even fatality. The key to this success is that employees trust (highlighted because this is a very important word here) that the company is going to adhere to the "just" culture they have set up in terms of blame. This trust is powerful and takes time to build - but it is ultimately possible for any company.

Continuous Reflection and Focus on Safety Culture

Although somewhat covered above, this is worthy of its own mention. Safety and safe procedures must always be top of mind for the entire organization. This means measurement and continuous improvement, as well as a focus on learning - both mentioned above. But it also means highly visible, meaningful and continuous evidence of commitment.

One example that helps demonstrate company commitment to safety is regular visitation from top-level management (preferably the CEO) discussing the company's actions around safety, providing evidence on safety KPIs, and listening to feedback. I have seen the effect of this kind of top-to-bottom transparency at BC Ferries and it is nothing short of impressive. Other examples include employee safety focus groups, consistent safety messaging in the workplace, the celebration of "jobs done right" alongside the dissemination of near-miss information, and more. For safety to be top of mind, it must be continuously messaged and reflected upon in meaningful ways - and I stress the "meaningful" part of that. A sign on the wall reminding people of their role in safe operations will be respected if employees believe in management's commitment to safety, and a sad joke otherwise.

Talking With The Expert

One person who has not only seen safety culture shifts, but has also been the architect of the same, is Captain John Wright of WrightWay Training Services in the UK. He is the recent recipient of an IHS Safety at Sea training award. I had the very good fortune of meeting Captain Wright because of his involvement with the BC Ferries SailSafe project - a multi-phased project aimed at improving safety (and one that the company I work for, Marine Learning Systems, is fortunate and proud to be a part of).

Captain Wright teamed with Force Technology in 2007 to assist BC Ferries with the design and implementation of their SailSafe cultural safety transformation. SailSafe has been an incredible success in terms of reducing accidents, days lost through injury, and insurance premiums. In fact, as the article linked to above shows, time loss injuries have been cut in half, serious injuries have been reduced by two-thirds, and annual insurance claims costs have been reduced by over three-quarters. And since writing that article, I have received an update for the beginning of 2013 indicating that after nine weeks, time loss injuries are down an additional 47 percent compared to last year. Captain Wright is in the business of helping vessel operators achieve similar results.

With this in mind, I present here an interview I did with Captain Wright on the topic of safety culture. I hope you find it as illuminating as I have. I'll present the bulk of the interview in the next article, but let's begin here with one overarching question:


We will dig into the nitty-gritty of culture change in the next article, but can you whet our appetite by first giving us a high-level overview of how a company can improve its safety culture?


"The very best way to improve a safety culture, which means improve absolutely everything in the business, is achieved when a company decides to properly ask their employees this question in a structured way:

“What’s wrong and how can we fix it?”

Employees are rarely asked that question and when they are, their brilliant and often simple ideas end up on some poor hapless overstretched manager’s desk, who is simply forced to put it in the ‘too difficult’ tray. The net result is the originally fairly demotivated employees who have had their hopes momentarily raised, have them quickly dashed by inaction. They then become spectacularly demotivated and the company is in a significantly worse place than before as a consequence.

The answer is real workforce involvement and ownership of their own ideas. People are endlessly supportive of their own ideas and by allowing them to execute them for themselves, an organisation puts the enormous ‘horsepower’, which resides in its workforce and which is often on ‘idle’ or ‘tickover’, onto the ‘propeller shaft’. The result is:

  • Reduced loss events (for example, injuries and damage to equipment),
  • Reduced turnover of personnel,
  • Reduced training and re-training costs,
  • Reduced sickness absence, and
  • An increase in motivation, involvement, enthusiasm, communication, teamwork and quality of decision making.

All of this adds up to increased productivity and everyone going home in one piece to their families. Simple really!  :-)"

In the second and last article in this series, I am going to publish the remainder of the interview with Captain Wright. I ask questions such as:

  • What is the secret to safety and loss avoidance?
  • For management, what is the biggest indicator that they can look for in their company to determine whether they have a safety and culture problem - before an accident occurs?
  • If management is fully behind culture change, how likely is it to succeed?
  • If you had to say, what is the one most important ingredient in culture change?

… and many others.

If you would like to be notified when that second article is available and have not already done so, please sign up here to receive maritime training article notifications. Until then - thanks for reading and sail safe!

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About The Author:

Murray Goldberg is the founder and President of Marine Learning Systems (www.marinels.com), the creator of MarineLMS - the learning management system designed specifically for maritime industry training. Murray began research in eLearning in 1995 as a faculty member of Computer Science at the University of British Columbia. He went on to create WebCT, the world’s first commercially successful LMS for higher education; serving 14 million students in 80 countries. Murray has won over a dozen University, National and International awards for teaching excellence and his pioneering contributions to the field of educational technology. Now, in Marine Learning Systems, Murray is hoping to play a part in advancing the art and science of learning in the maritime industry.

Maritime Training: The full library of maritime training articles can be found here.

Blog Notifications: For the latest maritime training articles, visit our company blog here. You can receive notifications of new articles on our company blog by following the blog.

Maritime Mentoring: International Maritime Mentoring Community - Find a Mentor, Be a Mentor

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