Tribe Culture Change | Why blame culture fogs the real issue
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Why blame culture fogs the real issue

Why blame culture fogs the real issue

People were quick to blame the Costa Concordia’s captain when it ran aground and sank off the Italian coast. But in the haste to point fingers, blame culture fogged the real issue of poor risk assessment which contributed to the disaster.

“One hundred years after the Titanic, we build even bigger ships packed with all sorts of modern amenities but we’ve apparently done little to improve safety in the event of hull damage. Apportioning blame still seems more important than effective risk management.”

Roy Perkins, safety practitioner for over 40 years, draws important similarities between shipping and construction to show how blame culture and questionable risk assessment (RA) have become endemic:

“… good managers, supervisors and operatives are frustrated by unnecessary paperwork… On the other hand, people with no self-motivation produce regurgitated RA tables of dubious origin, and rest on their laurels believing they have complied with their H&S duties.”

Whoever was at the helm of the ill-fated Costa Concordia made a terrible error of judgement. As a boat owner with many years of experience, I know that the combination of speed and a late turn to run the ship close to the coast of Giglio resulted in unavoidable side drift, and collision with the shoreline was inevitable.

Fingers pointing at one another

There’s little doubt that Captain Schettino will be held responsible but I do wonder if our endemic blame culture is fogging out the real issues yet again?

We seem to have made little progress since the Titanic, which also suffered a longitudinal tear in its hull that caused it to list and sink. Its lifeboats then couldn’t be launched because the lowering mechanism needed a vertical descent into the water.

One hundred years after the Titanic, we build even bigger ships packed with all sorts of modern amenities but we’ve apparently done little to improve safety in the event of hull damage. Apportioning blame still seems more important than effective risk assessment (RA).

In the case of Concordia it took no time at all for the press to point out that Captain Schettino had not commanded an emergency drill before sailing. Perhaps he should have made a comforting announcement instead:

“In the unlikely event of having to abandon ship, passengers will be guided to lifeboats on the side of the ship closest to the water as only these boats will be capable of being launched. All passengers are requested to stay calm whilst we board as many people as possible. Remaining passengers should put their life vests on over warm clothing to combat hypothermia and only enter the water as a last resort. We wish you a safe and pleasant journey and hope you will sail with us again in the near future.”

An endemic problem with no end in sight

Cynicism aside, it seems that RA in shipping is much the same as the construction industry. No, I’m not suggesting that all is bad, but for every decent RA out there I’m confident of finding another 100 that are simply not worth reading.

RA was once something done as a matter of routine by good managers, supervisors and operatives when planning work. They created no special forms and mostly communicated verbally. Yes, and I concede, this was not so in all cases – there were still those who couldn’t care a jot. But where are we now?

A lifeboat hanging from the side of a cruise ship against a blue sky with clouds in

The good managers, supervisors and operatives are frustrated by unnecessary paperwork (its only purpose being something for others to later criticise) but what they do produce remains purposeful and constructive. On the other hand, people with no self-motivation produce regurgitated RA tables of dubious origin, and rest on their laurels believing they have complied with their H&S duties.

Everybody in the supply chain is at it. Clients demand them from their principal contractors who in turn demand them from their contractors. Some even get their operatives to write them in the belief that safety will be improved. I question if most of these people are sufficiently informed on the work activity to evaluate the risk assessment in the first place let alone the material issue of site conditions that prevail at the time!

So where is the HSE in all of this?

Well, in my experience, they’re conspicuous by their absence.

The Management of Health and Safety at Work ACOP states in paragraph 9:

“All employers should carry out a systematic general examination of the effect of their undertaking, their work activities and the condition of the premises. Those who employ five or more employees should record the significant findings of that risk assessment.”

Apart from the let-out clause for employers of less than 5 people (which makes little sense to me) the requirement is OK but its translation has been stretched to extremes. This results in acceptance by some clients and not others which in turn invites added pages to cater for missing information, culminating in a document the size of Encyclopedia Britannica (for those old enough to remember). Only in recent times have the HSE published guidance on what they suggest might be appropriate, but nobody seems to be listening.

David Cameron wants to “kill off safety culture” and he’s right in that something needs to be done. The problem though is how to stop the rot.

Good risk assessment should be holistic and pragmatic, so you see the bigger picture beyond the seemingly obvious and easy targets for blame.

Finally, returning to Concordia, let us hope that appropriate justice is brought to bear on Captain Schettino (for whatever crime he has committed) but moreover that the maritime industry learns from this disaster and takes passenger ship stability, deployment of its life boats and risk assessment more seriously.

In so far as parading their ships in carnival fashion – I’m certain cruise liner captains have lost the urge to do so weeks ago.

Roy Perkins is secretary of the Midland Construction Safety Group and a chartered member of IOSH.

Tribe Culture Change
chris@chriskenworthy.co.uk