People are the common factor involved in all maritime activities. I believe that we need more to be done to understand the psychology of the mariner, the limitations and how it works. In my presentation, I will focus on complacency, which I believe that it is a huge problem for the maritime industry. But I also believe that there are measures that we can take to address it.
So what is complacency? I prefer the explanation by Peter Meyer, UK Chief Inspector of Marine Accidents, in respect to the maritime industry ”Complacency does not imply smugness or self satisfaction but rather familiarity with an operation such that the possible consequences of something going wrong have largely been forgotten” or simply ”familiarity breeds contempt”. Complacency is also being described as an aspect of human nature that every experience mariner should recognized and act against. In the maritime environment things go wrong, people do make mistakes, equipment does fail. However safety barriers should be in place in order failures not to result in catastrophe. Complacency describes the frustration with officers who acknowledge instructions and fail to comply with basic professional principles despite being well equipped and supported. Complacency is also a state when accidents occur because watchkeepers are distracted by paperwork, mobile telephones or even computer games or they neglected to monitor the radar, to look over the bridge window or even to make planned course alterations. So complacency is one of the great threats to the mariner, because much of what we do planning; navigation; watchkeeping; maintenance; cargo operations are repetitive. These tasks become a routine resulting in dangers.
Another important issue to examine is whether complacency can be a real problem or an affront to the professional mariner. Tony Kern in his book ‘Darker Shades of Blue’ , refers to complacency in the airline industry as the ”the slippery slope of compromised disciple, if you have done it once and got away with it the chances are, you will try again”. References in MAIB accident reports quote ”that the frequency of mooring operations and the routine that developed around them invited complacency.” It is easy for a degree of complacency to set in when handing and taking over the bridge watch.” Complacency is a killer, and it is vital that ships’ staff keep alert to the potential risks involved in mooring operations at all times. Accident clearly demonstrates that complacency can be dangerous.” These comments highlight that there are different views in respect to familiarity and routinization. When you handle a vessel four times the day every day, some may say that it is inevitable that you will eventually have an accident whereas others may say that you are so proficient in the practice that the likelihood of an accident is remote! I disagree with those who believe that complacency is a good excuse and support that there are no poor practices but poor systems and that complacency is a convenient term for incompetence. I certainly agree that active seafarers are the proper to review the systems. The shore management has failed to its responsibilities to the ISM Code if the vessels commander and crew feel that they cannot and should not influence the development of systems and even worse that the ship’s crew does not worth the effort.
Complacency tends to be the hallmark of more seasoned experienced officers. It’s been said that the capability to know and follow authoritative guidance is the mark of a professional. In many accidents, authoritative guidance is not followed because when you become an expert in one thing for example ship handling it is not meant that you become complacent to other. Professionalism is about balance.
Another interesting finding from MAIB accident report quotes that ”it was apparent that a gap existed between the good intentions of the management company and the practical realities of operating the vessel. So this lead to the question: Are management procedures really being implemented on board or has complacency led to a tick-box culture? Despite all companies having robust safety management systems and being ISM compliant, accidents are still happening. My opinion is that complacency is endemic in any industry where the work is repetitive.
More obvious factors relating to complacency are the following: boredom, drudgery, familiarity, ignorance, impulsiveness, routinisation whereas the less obvious factors are apathy, contentment, contempt, dumping down and feelings of invulnerability. These factors are important to understand in order to address the problem. In order to respond, we need to have sustained education and supervision to break existing poor habits and introduce safer working methods; effective crew management resource training; procedures to regularly reviewed and tested and encourage feedback. We also need to challenge the culture of our industry in order to recognize a job well done. We must recognize and show respect for every position and support that everyone onboard is a professional.
In conclusion, let us not underestimate the issue. Complacency exists on board all vessel types and with all crews. It is endemic and contagious and will not go away of its own accord. Its symptoms are injuries, groundings, collisions and mooring accidents and it need treatment. Therefore, we must encourage an approach where each task is approached with the same caution as if it were the first times it was being undertaken.
Above article is an edited version of Alastair Evitt’s presentation during 2014 SAFETY4SEA Forum
More details may be found by viewing his Presentation video