Is there enough of a checklist culture in the maritime industries?

by Simon Beechinor

I often wonder how often senior managers look at the checklists included in their own safety management systems. Many of the checklists that I see in safety management systems are ill-considered and useless for those poor seafarers expected to do work.

My purpose in writing this blog is to help ‘cross-fertilise’ ideas from one industry sector to another. When I look at the maritime sector and reflect on the challenges presented there, I often see many operational efficiencies and cost-savings that could be achieved by using intelligent and well-designed checklists.

Knowledge is learned and since humans aren’t perfect, failing plays a key role in our learning. Trial and error, collaboration and creative endeavour all encourage and embrace failure, which hopefully should spawn progress. But the pace of that progress is often painfully slow.

We can and should improve much more quickly by drawing on the experience of other industries. Quite often other industries use tools such as checklists far more effectively than we do. We should have enough confidence to approach them and learn from them how to improve.

‘Failure’ in the maritime industries isn’t really an option because of the potential human, environmental and cost consequences involved in any procedural failures. Procedural discipline is essential to save lives.

The commercial and military aviation, nuclear power and mining industries are similar sectors that each demand a robust performance in high-hazard environments. The maritime industry should be heralded as an exemplar of robust performance, yet we frequently fall short of acceptable standards.

During maritime operations, critical tasks are routinely performed with the mentality of ‘I’ve been doing this for years, I know what to do – I don’t need these stupid checklists’. After receiving training ashore or ‘on-the-job’, seafarers perform the same tasks many, many times with often repeatable success. However, seafarers are human: It’s common in our industries, which frequently involve long working hours over extended periods of week or months, for memories to fail, concentration or interest to lapse and moods to swing – these are human factors that can cause even the most experienced seafarer to have a lapse in judgement or decision making.

Managers, officers and ratings commonly rely on experience to perform high-risk tasks during normal operations and in emergency situations. However, they can quickly find themselves unprepared and far removed from a point of safety. It is during these moments that critical tasks can become susceptible to failures that cause Lost Time Incidents, downtime or worse.

I’ve deliberately lumped ‘managers’ together with ‘seafarers’ because I believe that management should think of themselves as ‘seafarers’. As the age of Artificial Intelligence (AI) dawns upon the industry it will increasingly be the case that managers are the seafarers themselves anyway, so they might as well get used to it.

A maritime organisation’s best mechanism to prevent human error is to instil a well-thought-out checklist culture. But the emphasis needs to be placed on the term ‘well-thought-out’.

When vigorously applied in various other industries, such the medical, aviation, and nuclear power industries, intelligently designed checklists have proven essential to the successful implementation of procedures and cost-control.

There are diverse types of checklists that are derived from specific sets of needs and circumstances. We need to look carefully at the reliability performance in other sectors and remember that the checklists we employ are only the beginning. Checklists by themselves are inanimate tools that need to be properly implemented.

When motivated by management, the output of any mature checklist culture is disciplined human behaviour that verifies compliance AND instils confidence and trust among seafarers. Trust is key.

Communal procedural discipline allows superintendents and their crews to follow standardised company-wide procedures that are prepared by experienced ‘hands-on-deck’, rather than a chain-of-command hierarchy that relies on spurious knowledge or theory. ‘Teamwork’ is the by-product of such reliability and consistency.

A checklist culture creates a team of seafarers who can reliably and consistently communicate with each other and operate together to complete any assigned tasks – precisely, safely, and calmly.

Simon Beechinor is a Commercial Operations Director, Project Manager and Master Mariner with extensive senior management experience of the maritime industries. His background includes the management of a major shipping company as Commercial Operations Director, and subsequently CEO, of a large marine consultancy and cargo services company based in S.E Asia and a Pacific-based regional liner trade. @strathmayltd

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