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Maritime Blogs

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Has The ‘Global Village’ Influenced The Safety Of Our Ships

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The Human Element is mentioned periodically in every safety statistics as it accounts for between 50 to 90 % of accidents at sea, in addition, every incident’s investigation reports an involvement of the human element at some point in the causal chain.  Many studies have been carried out to investigate this issue in the shipping industry in different terms, such as the impact of new technology, lack of training, psychological factors just to mention few of them.

I trust that the globalization has had an impact on the Health and Safety aspect of many industries, we are moving from the local village to a global, borderless market and this has been crucial in creating a multicultural environment. This is not new in the shipping industry, a recent study reports that approximately 65 percent of the world merchant fleet have adopted a multicultural strategy, which is an irreversible trend in the maritime world. The very nature of the worldwide trades has helped the flexibility of the global human resources market, and this has created during the years a multicultural community bounded by the expertise in the maritime practice.

A survey carried out in 2007 by the Seafarers International Research Centre at Cardiff University proposes that nationality is the most significant factor in determining perceptions of risk at sea: this underpin my proposition that multi-cultural crews have heterogeneous perceptions of risks and thus possible impacts on health and safety behaviors.

I trust that there is variability in perceptions of risk between and among different cultural groups, cultural studies highlight that the risk perception is socially constructed; this is often unrecognized in a modern organization with multi-cultural employees.

My professional experience suggests that there is a lack of cultural awareness and still wrong stereotyping among the multicultural crews; in my opinion, the multicultural diversity and its influence on the health and safety in the maritime industry have not been investigated thoroughly. Interesting enough, despite the substantial attention devoted by management and scholars to the ‘organizational culture’, there are still few attempts of bringing cultural theories of social anthropology into the management arena.

In brief, I do believe that the culture, defined in many ways such as the ‘accumulation of human accomplishment’ and as a set of cultural glasses lens that provide us with a means for perceiving the world around us, plays a big role in the safety management. I trust that the cultural concept is a very powerful tool, which I found very useful in understanding the modern organization. In fact, in order to make sense of situations biased by our own assumptions, it is necessary to take a cultural perspective, learning to see the world through “cultural lens”.

The word “culture” in most Western languages means civilization or “refinement of the mind” and that the result of such refinement of the mind includes education, art, and literature, however it is argued that the cultural stability, especially in the Western world, is short lived, as homogeneity is achieved with difficulty and is always about to dissolve.

Managers often speak of developing “the right kind of culture”, this suggests that the word “culture” is used in a superficial and perhaps incorrect way with the assumption being that there is are “good” and “bad” cultures. In reality, the culture of a group is what personality or character is for an individual, the way we see people is mainly through their personality traits and behavior.  The former can be broadly defined as what a person is, the latter as what a person does. This concept is also true for a culture, in fact, we can observe the behaviors of the group in a particular culture, but very often we cannot see what really constrain it, which is what really matter the most.

In a complex society, individuals belong to many different organizations and therefore a given cultural unit is, in reality, a complex set of overlapping subcultures. Just to mention one model that we always bring to any new group situation is our own model of family, which is the group where we spend most of our early life.

The concept of organizational culture has been extensively studied in the last two decade, and it is widely acknowledged that this concept is critical to determine an organization’s success or failure.

In the organizational culture framework, it is possible to appreciate how the values, attitude, and beliefs about safety are expressed and how these influences the organization directions.  In the Offshore Oil Industry the disaster of the Piper Alpha in 1988 rapidly and dramatically highlight the importance of these values and the term of ‘safety culture’ arose by its own right in this industry as well as in the general opinion, in this case after the disaster of the nuclear power station in Chernobyl in 1986.

Cultural Theories have a wider influence on the discipline of social anthropology, they have been applied in diverse fields such as political science, policy studies, organizational theory, risk prediction and management, industrial safety, theoretical criminology and even in information systems risk management strategies.

I trust that it is now time to bring these theories into the maritime industry, Health and Safety is a key concern in today’s world of work, every industry is putting a lot of effort in making the workplace safer, for a variety of reasons. Big corporations face the ethical dilemma of standing on a social ground where it is not acceptable by today’s society to see employees, and hence the member of the society, suffer from incidents while working.  I would add that the endeavor of avoiding incidents is also dictated by marketing reasons and more pragmatically for the cost involved in dealing with unfortunate events. Again, a safe company is surely more “marketable” than competitors with poor safety records. Policy makers are constantly developing new rules and regulations trying to set a framework within the workers should be able to practice their trades in an incident-free environment. Globalization has surely added another ingredient to the already complex issue; I trust that an effort should be made to investigate its impact on the health and safety aboard our ships.  

Credits: Captain Valerio De Rossi MSc, MNI



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