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Mutual disrespect – shipping's bureaucratic communication breakdown

6 September 2019

Trust between seafarers and shore-based management has declined to 'disturbing' levels, a major research project has discovered. Andrew Linington reports

Masters and officers are feeling increasingly unable to exercise their professional judgement as a consequence of the growing use of bureaucratic systems and procedures, coupled with increasing surveillance from ashore.

That is the conclusion of an international study carried out by experts at Cardiff University's Seafarers International Research Centre (SIRC). The analysis warns that the breakdown in trust between ships and shore presents worrying implications for the morale and wellbeing of maritime professionals and may have damaging impacts upon shipping companies.

Presenting the findings, SIRC director Professor Helen Sampson said the shipping industry has increasingly adopted 'punishment-centred' bureaucratic systems at corporate level and through international regulations.

A series of high-profile accidents – such as the Herald of Free Enterprise and Exxon Valdez disasters – resulted in the introduction of procedural and paperwork measures such as the International Ship Management (ISM) Code, and new rules and record-keeping requirements through amendments to the MARPOL, STCW and SOLAS Conventions, she pointed out.

This has meant that tasks which were previously carried out in accordance with the judgement of senior officers have become transformed into activities which follow a set of prescribed steps – designed by shore-based managers – which are laid out in a manual and often supported with requirements for the completion of further documents, such as checklists.

Almost all forms of regulatory enforcement in the shipping industry now rely on the maintenance of records that serve to demonstrate compliance with international standards, the researchers point out. Companies face big fines and seafarers can be jailed or dismissed if these records are not properly maintained.

Seafarers' autonomy has been further eroded since the late 1990s by the increasing use of technology to monitor shipboard operations from ashore. At the turn of this century, most ships simply faxed daily reports to their managers – but now data on everything from course and speed to engine performance can be continuously transmitted to remote centres on land.

As a result, the study notes, decisions that seafarers had previously been required (and trusted) to take onboard in isolation from shore-side management have rapidly become subject to scrutiny and second-guessing.

Prof Sampson said the SIRC team had carried out extensive research, funded by the Lloyd's Register Foundation and the TK Foundation, to find out how these trends are affecting seafarers. Researchers carried out nine observational voyages, conducted 400 interviews with officers and ratings, and analysed some 2,500 questionnaires completed by maritime professionals from the UK, China, Singapore, India and the Philippines.

The feedback gathered showed many masters and officers now feel unable to exercise their professional judgement in situations where they retain the legal and/or moral responsibility for the consequences of their actions or inaction.

Almost one-third of respondents said they had been prevented by shore staff from taking action in the best interests of crew, and 18% in the best interests of the ship.

Not only do seafarers feel less trusted, but they also fear an increased risk of losing their job if they are found in breach of the 'new normal'. The research uncovered cases which showed that some seafarers have good reason to have such fears, Prof Sampson said, and there was also evidence to show that some masters and officers feel unable to act independently even in an emergency.

Examples include a case in which shore-based managers resisted a master’s request to change course to avoid a typhoon and another in which a chief engineer’s request for new parts was questioned by personnel ashore.

Almost one-third of officer respondents said they had been prevented by shore staff from taking action in the best interests of crew, and 18% in the best interests of the ship

The study warns that masters are under particular pressure, as they remain formally charged with responsibility for crew safety whilst being insufficiently protected against dismissal to resist management pressure.

Many seafarers say that trust has also been reduced by a lack of support and respect shown by shore-based managers – some described as being authoritarian and others as sometimes verbally abusive.

And the lack of trust was shown to be a two-way channel. The researchers found numerous seafarers who described a lack of faith in shore-based managers' experience and knowledge and who considered that managers were ill-placed to offer proper assistance when unexpected problems arose.

This lack of confidence was compounded by a strongly held view that, even where managers had appropriate seafaring experience, they generally 'changed sides' as soon as they left the sea and went to work in the office, becoming concerned with the 'bottom line' above all else.

Prof Sampson said that the breakdown of trust can lead to 'organisationally dysfunctional behaviour' – with many seafarers not sharing information with the company and barely one-third saying that they always told shore staff the whole truth about the situation onboard – often because they feel the need to protect themselves against blame and recrimination.

This can lead to seafarers covering up for colleagues – even in some quite serious situations, such as an oil spill.

The researchers also found that seafarers 'caught between a rock and a hard place' may also take 'defensive actions' such as following instructions that they believed were inherently unsafe but demanding written instructions, dithering while awaiting office decisions, or taking unapproved action and facing the consequences.

All this can increase stress, reduce morale and lead to poor decision-making, the study warns. 'Hesitation, inaction, and taking the wrong actions all have the potential to produce very serious consequences for seafarers, and companies, because of the safety-critical nature of the industry,' it points out. 'However, hesitation in any organisational context is likely to be negative and may result in the persistence of bad practice, lost deals, and so forth.'

The researchers found that seafarers perceive the consequences for those who resist instructions from shore-based managers, in order to protect the safety and welfare of their crew and/or vessel, are severe. It is likely that this has an adverse impact on their desire to continue with a job at sea, the study adds.

However, the researchers found seafarers who talked openly about the fears they had in connection with standing up for what they believed was right – and frequently safe – in the light of their professional experience and training.

'Many seafarers were concerned that disagreements with their managers would result in future sanctions, including dismissal, and in this context it is no surprise that there are increasing reports of senior officers simply awaiting their next instruction from the office rather than exercising their own discretion,' the study noted. 'That this happens in a sector where timing may be critical and workers’ lives are frequently in the balance is especially disturbing.'

Top image: Igor-Kardasov / Getty Images


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