A culture of safety

ICS secretary general Guy Platten. Credit: Mark Earthy
ICS secretary general Guy Platten. Credit: Mark Earthy

While shipping has become safer, the industry must put a strong focus on safety culture and invest in training

Being exposed to the day-to-day reality of the safety of life at sea throughout my career has given me an intimate perspective of what works and what priorities are required to ensure safe operations. Starting out as a deck cadet in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary gave me a real grounding in the culture of safety. My understanding of the importance of instilling a strong safety culture through all operations grew from my time as divisional inspector for lifeboats at the Royal National Lifeboat Institution; the lifeboat crews are expected to head out in the worst of weather to rescue those in peril and their safety was paramount.

Furthermore, leading the principal international body representing shipowners in our discussions with global regulators and industry shapers, safety, and importantly, the culture of safety is vital. Conditions on board ships have improved immeasurably and the amount of regulation put in place to ensure safer systems and equipment has grown, but there is still an issue of culture that needs to be addressed.

Regulators can congratulate themselves for producing more regulation, port state control inspectors can be empowered with these new requirements, and safety management system documents can run to many pages. The reality is that we probably have enough regulation, and while we must not be complacent in ensuring that the regulations we have are fit for an ever evolving industry, more emphasis needs to be placed on people. Our seafarers are the life blood of the industry but all too often when margins are being squeezed by short-term external pressures, we can sometimes forget that investing in people pays dividends in the medium and longer term.

The dynamics of the shipping industry have evolved immeasurably over my career and the new wave of seafarers require different things from the working environment. Different cultures also approach work in different ways. The days of a large ship’s company crewed from a single nationality are long gone. The soft skills of management and corporate culture are increasingly important in the modern maritime sector.

We also need to focus on the mental health of our crews. Reducing crew numbers, increasing time at sea, and limited port turnaround times can have a dramatic effect on moral and mental health. This in turn can impact the motivation of crews to operate safely and to the highest standards. At a time of increasing threats to seafarers, especially in some parts of the world where we see an increase in piracy numbers at sea, the focus can easily be distracted. Therefore, we need to ensure that the culture in every company is one that recognises the value of safe and effective regulation being properly implemented for the benefit of all. This is as important for boardrooms as it is for the ordinary seaman.

Training is the key and I am pleased that the International Chamber of Shipping has been able to persuade the International Maritime Organization to conduct a comprehensive review of the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping for Seafarers. In a rapidly evolving sector, which is going to be faced with many new technologies and challenges as we transition to a lower emissions world, something we call the 4th Propulsion Revolution, there is a real need to instil a culture that is safe and up-to-date.

Embracing cultural differences, encouraging a more diverse sector, and investing in a human culture that places safety and wellbeing at its heart is an investment well made. This is what drives me and my team as we look to shape the future of shipping.