Safety culture onboard starts with yacht leadership

Aug 1, 2016 by Capt. Brian Luke

Safety and training are key elements of any well-managed vessel and crew. Developing a safety culture onboard any yacht takes practice and time. But how do you define and measure a good safety culture?

According to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), “An organization with a safety culture is one that gives appropriate priority to safety and realizes that safety has to be managed like other areas of the business. For the shipping industry, it is in the professionalism of seafarers that the safety culture must take root.”

Take note that the IMO points out that safety must take root in the professionalism of the crew (seafarers). The IMO also gives us the keys to develop a good safety culture:

  • Recognizing that accidents are preventable through following correct procedures and established best practice;
  • Constantly thinking safety; and
  • Seeking continuous improvement.

It is widely agreed that 80 percent of all accidents and incidents are caused by human error. However, it’s unusual for new types of accidents to occur onboard most vessels. Generally speaking, the same or similar accidents continue to occur on various vessels year after year.

These accidents are most likely violations of established procedures and practices, if, in fact, the procedures are set in place. These mistakes, or more aptly termed violations of good practice, can be easily avoided. Those who make them are most often completely aware of what they do and understand that they cut corners. They may have taken a shortcut that they should not have taken.

This is important because we know what accidents are likely to occur and under what conditions. We can develop safe procedures and practice certain functions, exercises and drills that help reduce the probability of one of these accidents occurring. Every accident starts with an unsafe act or the omission of a required act. Every accident is caused; it does not just happen.

The challenge for those saddled with the responsibility for training crew is to keep these unsafe acts down to a minimum by developing the required essential safety skills and developing positive attitudes needed to ensure safety objectives are met.

The goals are to inspire crew toward positive self-regulation and to encourage personal responsibility of established practices. Each crew member should make internationally recognized safety principles and best industry practices an integral part of their own personal standard.

Safety is everyone’s responsibility, but who is responsible for making sure it happens? Safety must always start at the top. The leadership of any yacht or organization is ultimately responsible for creating and managing the culture as a whole and safety in particular. Managing the culture onboard is of great importance for the overall success of the yacht.

Fostering the previously cited IMO ideal of crew professionalism is at the heart of this culture. Professionalism in our industry and the resulting elements, including an ever-present emphasis on safety, is a long-term investment and not a cost, unlike all of the other expenses associated with running a yacht.

It is a leader’s duty to inspire a culture of safety. But it cannot be turned on and off like a switch. The culture takes time to build, and it needs to be consistent. If the crew senses that the changes are not lasting, then they are not likely to embrace them. Only with strong, consistent and long-term leadership from the top is it possible to improve the quality of an organization’s safety culture.

The quality of the yacht’s overall culture will impact the safety of the yacht and hence its safety culture. Each crew must look at how their yacht’s culture affects the activities of the crew. It must be a culture that enables, promotes and rewards safe acts.

It is not possible for a yacht to have an excellent safety culture but have a poor culture in terms of workplace cleanliness or crew communication. All aspects of a yacht’s culture are interrelated.

The airlines view safety as a top priority and maritime industry tends to follow the airline industry in terms of developing safety programs. Maritime training such as Bridge Resource Management and Crew Resource Management are two examples of programs developed specifically after the airline model.

The airline industry and airline pilots regularly train for safety, and develop their “safety culture” armed with the knowledge of what failures in machinery and human error are most likely to occur. Pilots are required to attend simulator training every six to 12 months, where they go through standard procedures for dealing with engine failures, fires, hydraulic system failures, landing gear malfunctions and other possible known failure points on the aircraft, along with failures by crew.

There is an old saying in the airline industry, “Safety is no accident”. Put another way, safety requires active thought and action because it will never occur accidently.

We can learn much from how other industries view and approach safety. Overall, the yachting industry has done a great job of promoting safety, but that doesn’t mean we are finished. Safety requires constant attention and, of course, regular training onboard and in the classroom. It requires professionalism.

Remember, safety is no accident, so train regularly and keep your career on course.

Capt. Brian Luke is chief operations officer for International Crew Training in Ft. Lauderdale. Contact him through and