Safety first and last

Seafarers encouraged to confidentially report near misses as well as actual incidents

By Carly Fields

Adam Parnell took over as director of maritime at the Confidential Human Factors Incident Reporting Programme (CHIRP) Charitable Trust at a pivotal time. Taking over the reins of the seminal reporting system in August last year, Parnell has experienced first-hand the impact of the pandemic on maritime safety.

The CHIRP Charitable Trust has provided a totally independent and confidential safety reporting system to seafarers worldwide since 2003, complementing the reporting system that it has offered to the UK aviation industry since 1982. By publishing analysis of received incident and near- miss reports CHIRP raises awareness of safety issues and contributes to improved safety outcomes throughout every sector of the maritime industry. The programme complements existing statutory, company and other organisational incident reporting systems by providing a voice to those mariners who feel that they cannot otherwise speak out about safety, or who feel that their concerns have not been heard. CHIRP, says Parnell, speaking with The Sea, is “the voice of the mariner”, concerned only with the enhancement of safety for everyone employed by or associated with the global maritime industry.

Parnell explains that while the level of recreational vessel activities – and the associated reports – has reduced during the pandemic, this has been more than compensated by the increased number of reports from commercial vessels, who have continued to operate throughout the pandemic. “In many ways they are the unsung heroes who have ensured the continuity of global medical supply chains that the more visible front-line health workers rely on,” he says. Of note is the increase in the number of reports relating to safety issues arising from seafarers unable to get home, effect timely crew changes, or who are suffering mental and physical health issues because of the Covid-19 restrictions.

Confidentiality critical

One of the key aspects of CHIRP’s Maritime Programme is that reporters’ identities are kept confidential, rather than offering anonymity. This allows CHIRP to confirm the legitimacy of the reports. The reporter’s contact details are initially taken so that CHIRP can correspond with them to obtain more information if needed. “But as soon as we have the information that we need we disidentify the reports by redacting any names or contact details that we have prior to uploading the report to our secure database,” says Parnell. “If we ever need to approach third parties to obtain a different perspective of the incident, we always obtain the original reporter’s consent to do so first – and if that is not forthcoming then we do not pursue the third party.” Furthermore, when the incident is presented to CHIRP’s Maritime Advisory Board for analysis of the incident, any identifying information (dates, vessel names, locations etc) is removed. “To the best of our knowledge, none of our reporters have ever been identifiable – or identified – after reporting their concerns to us,” he says.

There is another advantage to publishing disidentified reports: when CHIRP publishes a report about ‘a vessel’ rather than a named vessel or even a vessel type, the findings become useful and relatable to a wider audience. “For instance, if  we mentioned issues regarding pilot ladders on tankers, that report might not be of immediate interest to, say, someone in the cruise industry, even though pilot ladder issues are pretty much universal. So, by our genericising the vessel type, we hope that our reports are more widely read.”

Fault lines

In terms of making safety progress, apportioning individual blame for incidents often proves to be a blinkered view of what has happened. Too often, says Parnell, blame is directed at those involved in the accident, or their immediate supervisors. “But depending on which accident analyst you speak to, between 80%-94% of incidents are the result of systemic or organisational shortcomings.”

Viewing incidents from the broader human factors perspective allows the industry to look at these wider issues and seek solutions, rather than ascribing blame to individuals. “That could be the foundation upon which the maritime industry adopts the ‘just’ safety culture’ ethos from their aviation counterparts,” he suggests.

Looking to the future, safety- related risks are increasing through new fuels, autonomy and remote operations. But the speed and the span of technological change throughout the industry presents immense opportunities as well as challenges to Parnell. “One of those opportunities is to embed safety at the heart of these changes right at the very start of their introduction and evolution. I don’t doubt though that the novel technologies that are being discussed will require significant safety oversight, management and training overheads.”

Specifically in relation to the introduction of new fuels, he recalls a quote from his explosives instructor in the Navy: ‘This stuff is safe until you forget that it’s dangerous.’

Autonomy and remote operations, meanwhile, are a paradigm shift akin to the move from sail to steam, he says, requiring seafarers to evolve. But irrespective of the technologies being introduced, the need for safety of the crew, the cargo and the vessel won’t change. Rather the way the industry applies the processes to control the age-old risks of collisions, groundings and so on will. Safety, he notes, is “timeless”.

Safety horizon

Digital megatrends, such as big data and Artificial Intelligence, need to be founded on a culture of reporting, Parnell adds, particularly safety reporting. Near misses are still too often not reported because it’s a human response to not want to report something that didn’t happen. “We first need to remove the stigma of reporting near misses and instead celebrate the act of reporting as much as, if not more than, the content of the report itself.” Big data relies on data transparency to avoid false lessons being learned.

As a former mariner, Parnell is acutely aware of the challenges that seafarers face. To reduce accidents and improve safety, he urges the industry to remember the human seafarers at the heart of the industry. Ensure that they are adequately trained, rested and the time pressures on them are better managed. “These are the same issues that face the aviation industry and we can learn a lot from them in terms of crew resource management, closed-loop communication techniques, and the primacy of a robust reporting and ‘just’ safety culture,” he says.

As for CHIRP’s future, Parnell is keen to maintain the momentum that his predecessor generated in many areas, not least of which is the need to raise awareness of the programme among the global seafarer community. He also plans to make the programme more accessible to seafarers. “That means improving our website, social media channels and overall ‘digital footprint’, and making much more of our material available online.” He would like to expand the number of languages that CHIRP is published in: “Since I’ve joined, we’ve published our quarterly journal in Spanish and Indonesian to complement the four existing languages (English, Chinese, Portuguese and Filipino) and I hope to introduce yet more languages so that we engage directly with as many seafarers as possible in their first language.”

Finally, in parallel, Parnell aims to expand the number of partnerships that CHIRP has with other maritime organisations, to increase its insight into topical maritime safety issues and to widen the audience of its safety messages for the good of the entire industry.

To read the latest issue of Maritime Feedback, CHIRP’s safety publication in six languages, go to: