Changing the Safety Culture

Could it also be the most productive thing you will ever do for your business?

Although reduced in number in recent years, with seamen still being injured and killed in significant numbers on our ships and with ship casualties continuing to occur, it is perhaps tempting to conclude that the task of eliminating, or even further reducing, these terrible personal and industrial tragedies is just too difficult and maybe even impossible. You may ask in these days of austerity, “How can this possibly be done?
Surely it’s like squaring a circle isn’t it?” and you may be excused for going on to say, “In any case, achieving it is far too expensive and not realistic anyway!” The answer is not only can it be achieved, but also its pursuit will result in it being the most productive thing a company will ever do for its business. Is it easy? Certainly not, change never is: It involves changing the collective attitudes, beliefs and values of the organization and that is a five to ten year ‘voyage’.

Why should you bother?

Well, the answer may be found in the findings of the 2009 McLeod report to the UK Government entitled “Engaging in Success”. Amongst the report’s many evidence based findings were that those UK business units with the top quartile scores in workforce engagement had 27% higher profitability, 13.7% improvement in net income growth, 19.2% improvement in operating income, 2.6 times higher growth rates and 3.5 less sickness days per employee per year than the business units in the bottom quartile. 86% of engaged employees said they often felt happy at work, against 11% of the disengaged and it showed that employee engagement could make the difference between business survival and extinction.

The latest research from the ‘Engaging for Success’ team, published this year, showed that in the UK, 7 out of 10 employees are neutral about, or do not trust their bosses and 39% of disengaged employees suffer with stress and eventually resign as a consequence. We have seen no evidence, when dealing with companies around the world, marine or otherwise, to demonstrate that anything is any different in many other countries. However, what McLeod did not provide was the ‘how to do’ part and that was invented by my great friend Ken Woodward, who was tragically blinded in an industrial accident in Coca Cola in 1990 and whom was awarded an OBE from Her Majesty the Queen in 2006 for his services to health & safety, of which this idea was a major part.
If a company is serious about achieving world-class safety and business excellence, they need to draw on the experiences and insights of all employees, both ashore and afloat, and allow them to identify the challenges they face and the ways to remedy them. They will identify how to simplify, improve and make their ships’ ports and offices, safer and more efficient places and the key to success is the employees owning their own ideas and implementing them for themselves, with the help and support of their managers, superintendents, masters and chief engineers. A mistake often made is when workforce ideas are placed in over worked and stressed managers in-trays, adding the findings to their already large pile of things to do and inevitably finding their way into the ‘too difficult’ tray. The consequential inaction, having momentarily raised hopes in the workforce and then seen them dashed, creates a much worse state of morale than existed before the initiative was attempted.
So, if this culture change is to be achieved, what is the biggest challenge that would prevent or curtail it?
Well, the ‘engine room’ of any organisation is without doubt its middle management level people. In shipping this is first line managers and superintendents ashore and the captains and chief engineers on the ships. So, once the Board of Directors are committed to the process, which is usually a relatively straightforward process, and the front line employees begin to recognise what is being attempted and they dare to hope, which is also relatively quick to happen for the majority, then the main challenge is to convince these critical middle management employees of the need for this process and the need for them to change, to a lesser or greater degree. They need to change from the ‘I speak, you listen’ command and control style of management, to a ‘How can I help you and how can I support you?’ team leader. They also need to be comfortable and empowered to ask their boss for help and support as and when required. All of this important change does not occur spontaneously, or by a process of osmosis: So Leadership & Management training is essential in many more ways than one, since possession of these skills are a crucial part of effective workforce involvement and the pursuit of excellence. Enter the 2010 Manila amendments to the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW) Convention and Code, in which Human Element Leadership & Management (HELM) non-technical skills training was mandated as part of officer’s Certificates of Competency. Designed to improve crew performance, HELM training examines the crucial role people play in high-stress, high-risk environments and encompasses team training, simulation and interactive group discussions.

It is our experience that when HELM training is conducted for managers and senior officers alike, with the use of marine simulators to drive home the need to change attitudes, beliefs and values through experiential learning, then it can be used to ‘lubricate the engine of change’ as part of the wider pursuit of excellence. This saves money through greater efficiency, reduces risk of injury and damage to equipment, whilst building a more content, motivated and productive workforce. Through this blended approach, a ‘one team’ approach to health & safety is created across a company and the extensive untapped energy within its workforce is harnessed through a culture of shared ownership and accountability.
For maximum effect on the ships, the newly learned non technical skills, and methods of running an effective team, should be ‘coached in’ by trained employees who visit ships to monitor, support and advise on the newly acquired behaviours, ensuring they are being put into practice on the bridges and in the engine control rooms where they count and where ‘the rubber hits the road!’
By combining HELM training with workforce involvement and ownership as described, one company avoided $7.5million in direct health & safety related costs and a further $30 million in operational costs over 5 years and saw a 3 to 1 return on investment. Another, using workforce involvement and a real focus on the health, safety and welfare of their people, turned a $7.5 million bottom line profit into $150 million over 7 years. A large construction company, when building a major airport terminal, came in on budget and on time with significantly reduced accidents, and another even bigger capital project came in under budget and ahead of schedule with very few injuries and most of them minor.

I have personally believed in the need for effective teamwork on the bridge, in the engine room, on the ship and in the whole organisation, since I was a 17 year-old deck cadet – a very long time ago! So to see Human Factors and Leadership & Management training finally becoming part of ship’s officer’s Certificates of Competency, and to see the successes derived from real workforce involvement and genuine end user ownership, is just wonderful, since so many more mariners return to their families uninjured. However, there is so much more to do if we are to send all of our seafarers home to their loved ones in one piece, as they surely deserve!

 

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