Safety first: building a ‘safety climate’ is key to avoiding marine accidents

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 April, 2017, 3:32pm
UPDATED : Monday, 22 January, 2018, 4:14pm

Located at the gateway to southern China and the centre of the fast-developing Asia-Pacific trading basin, the Hong Kong port has always played a key strategic role in the economic development of the city.

In 2016, Hong Kong was ranked as the fifth largest container port in the world, handling more than 19.8 million teu (20-foot equivalent units) of containerised goods. The Chinese mainland remains the biggest source and destination of Hong Kong’s transshipment cargo, carried by oceangoing vessels and river trade feeders. Last year, the number of vessels arriving in Hong Kong exceeded 185,000.

The Hong Kong port is renowned for its efficiency. Yet the busy maritime activities have also brought concerns around safety issues. In 2015, the marine department recorded 319 accidents in Hong Kong waters, ranging from collisions and groundings to fires and explosions. In fact, over the past decade, the annual accident figure has always remained way above 300.

Maritime safety refers to the process of implementing international and national rules with the objective of minimising the risks to people (crew, passengers), property (ships, cargoes, containers) and the environment. Shipping is one of the most international yet risky industries in the world. To improve the safety of shipping operations and the environment, the International Maritime Organisation has been developing a number of international safety regulations for shipping nations to follow.

Research has shown that safety climate can help predict safety-related outcomes, such as fatalities or injuries

However, often the regulations are just minimum requirements. Safety involves not only the technical skills but also operations and management. Accidents usually occur on board because of unsafe acts or errors by crew and employees, which cannot be readily avoided through best practice or established rules. For ship managers and maritime companies, in order to reduce the frequency of unsafe acts, it is necessary not only to instil the requisite skills but also to create a safety climate in which employees have an awareness of safety issues and safety behaviour.

Organisational safety climate refers to the coherent set of perceptions and expectations that employees have regarding safety in their organisation. It is related to shared perceptions about organisational values, norms, beliefs, practices and procedures. Research has shown that safety climate can help predict safety-related outcomes, such as fatalities or injuries.

A study was carried out in 2016 on the effects of safety climate and leader-member exchange quality on the safety behaviour of container terminal workers in Taiwan. Using a structural equation modelling analysis and survey data collected from 265 workers, the research came up with several major findings that provide shipping or port executives with insights for improving maritime safety and thus enhancing the management efficiency of their companies. In fact, the findings can be applied to many other industries.

Efficient management must value safety climate

Firstly, the research shows that safety climate positively influences employees’ safety behaviours. Terminal operators should precisely design their safety training programmes and provide incentives to encourage employees to participate in safety issues. But if the top management lacks safety commitment, the effectiveness of training and motivation will invariably decline. Policymakers should properly understand the value of safety climate versus the costs of casualties.

To build and sustain safety climate, top management should give supervisors the necessary authority, as well as space, for exerting their influence over employees’ safety attitudes and practices

Secondly, the research finds that supervisors involved in setting safety goals, enforcing safety rules and auditing employees’ safety behaviour are vital in building organisational safety climate. It is crucial for defining responsibilities in the preparation and implementation of safety management within an organisation in order to identify ways for effectively implementing safety. After all, supervisors have absolute authority and discretion to take whatever action they consider to be in the best interests of vessel, cargo, crew, passenger and the environment. Furthermore, safety climate is a “living” system. It has to be improved continuously through reviews, audits and a reporting system being established within an organisation. To build and sustain safety climate, top management should give supervisors the necessary authority, as well as space, for exerting their influence over employees’ safety attitudes and practices.

Thirdly, in real life, regulations are often implemented in a minimalist fashion. The importance of safety climate is in changing the attitude and behaviour of employees so that they come to believe in safety and always seek further improvements. And, for safety climate to be successfully implemented, a company’s positive attitude is crucial. Research indicates that safety attitude and behaviour can be fostered by the company frequently conducting safety inspections, posting warning signs for hazardous goods and regularly providing safety information.

More importantly, employees need to understand that all these acts are not simply for meeting safety regulations, but to bring about actual safety improvements, which can have life-or-death consequences for all employees and their families.

Finally, the research specifically proves that the quality of leader-member exchange plays an important role in enhancing safety climate. Leaders develop different types of exchange relationships with their subordinates, the quality of which always influences individuals’ attitudes and behaviours. In a high-quality relationship, terminal manager (leader) and workers (members) participate in cooperative problem-solving, leading to a set of teamwork behaviours that are mutually enhanced. Conversely, in a low quality relationship, such teamwork fails to develop and thus has a negative influence on workplace safety. A meta-analysis indicates that leader contingent rewards, transformational leadership, and leader trust can significantly influence the quality of such an exchange relationship.

These scientifically proven findings on the usefulness of safety climate in reducing human errors and enhancing workplace safety can certainly be practical tools for managers and practitioners in not only shipping and port operations, but also other industries such as health care, airline, railroad services or logistics.

Lu Chin-shan is a professor of the department of logistics and maritime studies and director of the C.Y. Tung International Centre for Maritime Studies at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University