June 07, 2012

Mouth Open. Eyes Shut. Safety Off.

Don't groan, but yet another report on safety at sea has been unleashed upon us.

The problem is not that the Lloyd’s Register Educational Trust Research Unit's latest study is rubbish. The problem is that the report- that says it explores 'differences in perception of risk and its management in shipping' but seems to concentrate on shoreside sincerity in managing issues of safety and crew welfare- is all true. Concisely- interpretation mine- the report points to an industry that pays lip service to safety more often than not.

The problem is that LRET tells us nothing new; none of these reports really do. I therefore question the usefulness of the report while agreeing with its findings.  I also find the entire idea- dissecting seafarers, examining their feelings, thoughts and reactions under a microscope and then rolling out, with numbing regularity, reports to an industry that simply does not care- cynical and patronising. 

Of course, LRET has published its findings in a manner palatable to the commercial world, publishing mariner comments as anecdotes or case studies instead of an indictment; that is the way such reports usually go, and have gone for the last twenty years and more. It finds that a small family run shipping company cares- compared to bigger outfits ('ship management?')- more about safety and crew welfare than the others looked at. Of course, LRET cannot say that the overwhelming majority of ship owners and managers care more about profits-or their promotions, or PR, or their morning cup of tea- than they do about seafarer lives or welfare. LRET can only cite cases that show this, and they repeatedly do. (Not the tea one, obviously)

I bet that each anecdote the report cites- each one, without exception- is something every seafarer has personally experienced or see happen. I certainly have. Some of the reports LRET cites are so common: The Captain being sacked for daring to stop the ship because the crew were fatigued. Penny pinching shore staff. The need for a Master to point out that the Superintendent could be arrested in the US if an equipment test was not done. The incident where a company were more worried about the PR disaster that an explosion would cause (only in my case it was a possible sinking) than about the lives of its employees at sea. The reduction in crew strength and shift to cheaper, less than competent crews. The almost juvenile need of managers who want to be told that everything is great on board and there are no safety issues. Managers saying (on the phone, obviously) that fatigue is an on board problem which would go away if only the senior officers managed the crew better. The emphasis on making sure the paperwork is perfect (even if safety measures are not) “to protect the corporation in the event of any mishap,” as a respondent told LRET. The owner's niggardly reaction to the cost of even a cup of coffee and a snack while a crewmember was joining a ship. The unsubtle racism that protects some officers- both ashore and afloat- at the expense of others born with the wrong skin pigmentation. 

Nothing is new in all these anecdotes LRET cites. My fellow sailors and I have seen it all. Repeatedly. I wish the LRET report had said as much- that this kind of behaviour is commonplace in shipping. So commonplace that a seaman expects it, takes it for granted and is actually surprised when things happen differently, even in 'big' ship management companies. I was certainly surprised when I worked directly for the owners of a small fleet of small ships. LRET has it on the ball there; working for owners directly is better than working for managers.  My words, not theirs, obviously.

What is not said in the report- which nonetheless seems to find fault with four of the five companies canvassed- is that a majority of managers and owners behave appallingly over basic safety; we lie when we imply that the bad guys are exceptions in the industry. I know that, which is why I question the usefulness of these studies, however carefully worded; nothing ever changes. Nothing ever will.

The industry is shooting itself in the foot and it knows it. Writing for BIMCO, Andrew Guest says it well, albeit too diplomatically for my liking: "Wasting time and money on safety campaigns when every last cent has to be watched in one of the worst recessions in shipping might seem a perverse way of running a business. That, however, is what it seems some companies are doing, as their audience has already been convinced that the safety messages are simply empty rhetoric or flummery.” 

The industry's 'default setting' is well known to all sailors. For example- and outside the LRET report- I am told that many Shipmasters have recently been pressurised to reduce speed in the pirate kill zone, because times are terrible and the cost of fuel spent is more than the cost of armed guards. This is already happening on a decent sized scale and will undoubtedly escalate. An industry that did not- for years- use armed guards and hid behind shady BMPs now wants to hide behind armed guards and ignore one of the few sensible things that was being recommended in the BMPs- maximum speed in pirate areas. My opinion on the spines and characters of the Captains, DPAs or other sundry shore personnel responsible for safety and security of those slowed-down ships is unprintable.

There is a well-worn slogan on preparedness that comes out of the United States gun lobby: "Eyes open. Mouth shut. Safety off". Unfortunately, the rhetoric that comes out of shipping has always interchanged the body apertures in the first four words there- to Mouth open. Eyes shut. Safety "Off". Maybe that is why we still need reports like the LRET one. Where nothing is new, not even the exasperated, derisive snort that escaped me as I read it.


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