top of page
  • Writer's pictureTim Close

Big Safety for the Maritime Industry

By Tim Close, Senior Consultant

“BIG Safety” is a concept that focuses on sustaining operations and preventing major problems from happening. It goes well beyond the day-to-day aspects of managing a safety program. “BIG Safety” is about avoiding major injuries and deaths; avoiding groundings and collisions; preventing fires; preventing oil and hazardous material spills; avoiding major damage to ship machinery; avoiding major damage to cargo; and preventing disruptions to cargo operations and other vessel operations.

While it is important to track slips, trips and falls, the concept of “BIG Safety” is so much more than that. It goes beyond wearing PPE, monthly safety meetings, compliance with USCG, Class and (where applicable) OSHA requirements, and ensuring that sign-on training is completed, etc. Those are necessary and important. However, if the organization only sees safety in those terms and those elements, a lot is being missed.

Here’s a quick example: It is important for engineers to wear the correct PPE for the work they are doing in the engine room. But if the maintenance history and condition of the machinery are so poor that they contribute to a large fire in the engine room, the safety glasses routinely worn will not by themselves be enough to prevent injury and certainly will not prevent major costs and disruptions to the vessel’s schedule. But wait a minute - machinery maintenance is not the responsibility of the safety manager! True, but the point is not about what should and should not fall under the purview of the safety manager. The point is that real safety, i.e. “BIG Safety” is the responsibility of the company and leadership, both shoreside and on the ship. The goal of looking at safety from a “BIG Safety” perspective is not simply to ensure that responsibility is placed squarely on those responsible for each specific aspect of a ship’s operation. The goal is to have a safe ship - where operations are done safely and professionally, and that enable schedule predictability.

The safe ship is one where crewing, training, the ship’s schedule, maintenance and repairs, SMS compliance, bridge resource management, work/rest compliance, navigational competency, good watchstanding practices, good communications flow, meaningful drills, sustainable operations, good leadership and a solid safety culture all come together. “BIG Safety” is the responsibility of the company’s President, CEO, Board of Directors, etc., not the safety manager.

In a company with a good safety culture, there is an understanding of “BIG Safety” whether that term is used or not. Seniors leaders at that company are concerned about major ship incidents. They want to know that the details of the safety program are all in place and are being followed, but those details are not what keeps them up at night. Navigational issues,

machinery reliability issues, potential oil spills, loss of propulsion, fires and large schedule disruptions keep them up at night.

Similarly, ask mariners individually what their biggest safety concerns are and you will get a variety of good answers. Rarely will you hear “availability of PPE” or “slipping on a wet deck”. You will hear answers like “the training and experience of the mariners we get” and “the condition of the machinery plant” and “availability of money to make needed repairs” and “the ship’s crazy schedule” and “challenges associated with cargo operations”. If you specifically ask Masters, you will likely hear concerns about the navigation skills of young mariners, over-reliance on electronic navigation, and challenges getting mariners that arrive to the ship with the required training and with current qualifications. Chief Engineers will talk about their concerns with the experience levels of Assistant Engineers, funding for spare parts, and the challenges with getting all the necessary work done during shipyard availabilities. In a company with a good safety culture, their concerns echo those of the company’s senior leadership. That’s because those same concerns are the ones that result in navigation issues, oil spills, loss of propulsions, fires, etc. - and the senior officers on the ships don’t care whether or not it is the responsibility of the safety manager or the CEO personally. They only care that “the company” understands and works with them to mitigate or eliminate those risks – the “BIG Safety” concerns.

Here are a few more illustrations of “BIG Safety”.


The crew and their qualifications frequently come up as concerns. Is that a safety concern? It certainly can be. A mate on watch who is unfamiliar with the specific radar and/or ECDIS equipment can create serious risks to safe navigation of the ship. Similarly, a mate who has the right training on paper but who has not actually operated the systems in many months may pose a risk. A focus on “BIG Safety” recognizes those potential risks and ensures that all of the mates have been checked out on the specific equipment installed on the ship. The Master who says “That mate has a license and should therefore know how to use ECDIS,” fails to recognize his/her responsibility regarding the watchstanding practices and competencies of the mates.

Similarly, a Chief Engineer who says “the 3rd Assistant Engineer has a license and should know how to do a specific job,” misses the point that safety and integrity of the machinery plant should not be dependent on whether someone “should know something.” The smarter Chief Engineer takes the time to be sure the Assistant Engineers are familiar with the specific equipment and tasks they need to perform before they jump right in. Where will the Chief Engineer find the time to do that? The better question is why would the Chief Engineer not want to make the time to do that? That takes a lot less time than correcting an Assistant Engineer’s mistakes, or having to make more extensive repairs to a piece of machinery because the Assistant Engineer

who was unfamiliar with it got it very wrong. While you can always hold the Assistant Engineer responsible for his/her errors and competency level, the “BIG Safety” approach recognizes that it is better (and safer) to verify specific skills and experience BEFORE that work is started. That does not relieve an Assistant Engineer of the responsibility to speak up when tasked with something they’ve never done before, nor does not relieve them from putting in the extra time to learn the plant thoroughly and from cracking open the appropriate technical manuals. “BIG Safety” creates the atmosphere where proactive steps are expected and encouraged, and not just after a repair has gone awry.


What does the schedule of the ship have to do with safety? Like everything else related to ships and shipping, there are direct overlaps. In a simple example, the ship’s arrival at the dock to begin cargo operations promptly at 8:00 am usually means that the bridge and engine room were manned several hours earlier, and possibly that mooring stations were called 1-2 hours earlier. That means there is strong likelihood that much of the crew, especially the senior officers had their normal sleep schedule interrupted to some degree. While tradition and the tough nature of mariners says that is not a big deal, we are more aware today of the effects of fatigue, especially long-term fatigue. Further, the STCW work/rest requirements require that attention be paid to rest periods and their duration. I’m not suggesting that ships should discontinue 24x7 operations, just that sleep disruptions need to be accounted for and adequate rest needs to be gotten. While the Master is responsible for STCW compliance on the ship, the company sets the schedule and many people at the company may not be familiar with the challenges associated with sleep disruption and ensuring STCW compliance. Companies should consider getting them all onboard.

Additionally, pressure from the company to maintain the schedule, whether for the immediate benefit of customers or to minimize overtime and labor costs, can have unintended consequences such as when in-port repairs cannot be completed during a shortened in-port stay or have to be delayed. Those can negatively impact safety as well.


Traditionally, maintenance and repairs to machinery and equipment are the responsibility of the Chief Engineer on the ship and the company’s engineering department ashore, and they can have a direct effect on safety. A ship that loses power during bad weather can be in serious trouble. While there are many things that could cause a loss of power including some that are not predictable, the chances certainly increase when preventive maintenance is postponed or necessary repairs are delayed. Preventive maintenance is called that for a reason, whether it is condition-based, or hour-based. Not completing preventive maintenance (aside from being an ISM compliance problem) increases the likelihood of equipment failure and increases the magnitude of the equipment failure. If you are superstitious, it also increases the likelihood that the equipment will fail at the least opportune moment. The maintenance or repair issue could involve redundant machinery not being available, or machinery not being as reliable. Neither is good and can potentially lead to major problems – fire, flooding, loss of power, a reduction in available horsepower, etc.

These become safety concerns.


A trait of a professional mariner is his/her ability to stand a good watch. But that may be something Masters and Chief Engineers take for granted. Inexperienced mariners may not have that same sense of professionalism instilled in them yet, and experienced mariners may have grown complacent over the years. A proper watch relief involves a lot more than showing up on time and should normally take more than just a few seconds to fully understand the situation and plan for the next 4 hours. Beyond relieving the watch, actions and practices while on watch are critical. For example, ensuring that equipment alarms are audible (applies to the bridge as well as the engine room) and have not been turned down or silenced by the previous watch can be the difference between smooth sailing and disaster.

On the bridge, a good watchstander verifies that navigation equipment is properly set for the location and conditions. As simple and obvious as that seems, recent casualties involving ocean-going ships have been the result of (1) alarms turned down so much they were inaudible; (2) a radar display being offset during maneuvering such that a crossing ship was not visible on the screen; (3) failure to use radar-based collision warning alarms; and, (4) over reliance on AIS to avoid collisions, just to list a few.

In the engine room, there have been recent casualties involving (1) watchstanders who silenced alarms without further investigation to determine the reason for the alarm (2) Assistant Engineers who were unfamiliar with the proper emergency actions to take following a machinery failure (3) Assistant Engineers who were unaware of an operating pump left on by the previous watch, etc. Each one resulted in a big problem that damaged equipment, caused an oil spill (in one case), and delayed the respective ships. Those are “BIG Safety” issues.


As several football coaches kept telling me years ago, you practice like you play. Drills are best when they are done at full speed and with a sense of urgency. The exception is when the crew needs some additional training. In that case, do the training slowly enough that it becomes ingrained in the crew, then do a drill at full speed. Where will you find the time to do that? You can’t afford NOT to make the time to ensure the crew is trained and drilled for shipboard emergencies. Look at it this way: Should you have a fire, can you survive investigators asking why the crew was slow to respond, or why there were knowledge issues regarding the SCBAs, or why there was poor communications between the team leader and the Master or among the fire team members? If that is worrisome, then make the time to be sure that the crew is trained well and then practices their training during drills. An effective emergency response can substantially reduce the impact of an incident (fire, flooding, spill, etc.), where “effective” means quick, professional and well trained. That training and those drills are part of “BIG Safety.”


Good communication requires the physical communications equipment to be functioning correctly and be adequate for the tasks. More importantly, good communication involves people conveying clear messages in common terms with a sufficient amount of detail to ensure that all involved have the full picture. Generally, the equipment is not the problem when communications is poor. To safely operate a ship, communications needs to be outstanding including: the Master-Pilot exchange; between the bridge team members; from ship to ship; between the engine room and the bridge; between the mooring stations and the bridge; and between the company and the ship just to list a few examples. Every mariner has heard stories of how a poor assumption by a pilot regarding the intentions of another ship resulted in a collision.

There are also plenty of ugly incidents where ships were damaged because commands given to assist tugs were misunderstood; where helm commands were incorrectly heard and not repeated; where the significance of a machinery problem in the engine room was incorrectly passed to the bridge; or where operating deck equipment interfered with good comms between the bridge and the aft mooring station, etc. These things have all happened.

Focusing on “BIG Safety” is about understanding that information has to be passed correctly as well as heard and understood correctly. It is about fostering good communications through training, informal discussions and practice. Not everyone was born a good communicator, but everyone can make improvements to how effectively they communicate.


After reading the above six illustrations of “BIG Safety”, the next question should be “how do you get your company to the position where it views the safety program in broader terms than stats and PPE and safety meetings?” It takes recognition, focus and leadership.

Senior leadership should recognize that the overall safety program at the company has to be seen as more than maintaining the SMS policies and procedures, keeping the statistics on incidents and conducting ISM audits. Senior leadership has to create a sense of teamwork that ensures the right culture is in place, i.e., a safety culture that includes every aspect of the ship’s operations and every aspect of the support system for that ship (crewing, engineering, purchasing, maintenance, scheduling, etc.).

That in itself may be a culture change within the company, so it will take sustained focus and consistent reinforcement. Try the adage “safety is everyone’s business.” That is especially true when applying a “BIG Safety” perspective where the crewing department, the purchasing department, engineering and the port engineers, the scheduling staff, AND the entire complement of officers and crew all have a big hand in preventing major incidents. Teach everyone to recognize how their job impacts the safe operation of the ship.

Lastly, it takes leadership. Leadership will be needed to create the mindset throughout the company that the company’s primary desire is to operate safe ships - where operations are done safely, are done professionally, and enable schedule predictability; where crewing, training, the ship’s schedule, maintenance and repairs, SMS compliance, bridge resource management, work/rest compliance, navigational competency, good watchstanding practices, good communications flow, meaningful drills, sustainable operations, good leadership and a solid safety culture all come together. That’s “BIG Safety.” It is what every maritime company could use to improve real safety onboard their ships.

IMC is uniquely qualified to assist in making safety improvements within maritime companies. We can proactively assess the safety culture within the organization and suggest improvements. Additionally, IMC can assist company leadership with implementing safety culture improvements throughout the organization so they have lasting benefit. IMC can also review the company Safety Management System and related policies and procedures in place to assure regulatory compliance, correct non-compliance, and prevent future non-compliance.


Tim Close is a Senior Consultant with IMC specializing in safety, security and environmental compliance. Following a 30-year career in the U.S. Coast Guard as a marine safety professional, Captain Close was in charge of regulatory compliance, the safety and environmental compliance programs for a commercial fleet of ocean-going container ships. He has extensive experience with company and shipboard safety programs including establishment of policies and procedures, ISM compliance, auditing programs, safety recognition programs, and assessing safety culture. His detailed resume can be found at Full Resume (PDF).


bottom of page