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Promoting safety culture

The cruise industry is amid a full return to operations, and many steps must be taken to achieve this safely. DNV says a critical component is crew training and competence, and operators need to invest more in this area to strengthen their organizations’ safety culture.

In January 2022, the Cruise Line Industry Association (CLIA) released its State of the Cruise Industry Outlook 2022 report in January, forecasting that 100 per cent of cruise lines will have resumed operations before the year's end. Despite the expectation of new Covid-19 variants appearing, and the impact of the war in Ukraine, 2022 has been a positive year for the cruise industry. Already by May several major cruise lines had returned their entire fleet to service. In addition, with health authorities further relaxing Covid-19 travel restrictions and consumer confidence on the rise, cruise lines have gradually moved to eliminate occupancy caps onboard.

Focus needs to stay on safety

However, the return to passenger operations does not come without challenges. For operators, one of those challenges is training and building up the competency and knowledge of their crew. 

Operational safety has always been a top priority in the cruise industry. Still, Captain Jan Solum, Area Manager for DNV and Director of DNV’s Cruise Ship Center in Miami, notes that it is more of a struggle for the industry to maintain its safety culture in the present climate. While vessels continue to return to service, Solum cautions that significant risks are hiding in plain sight. He believes it is paramount that cruise ship operators direct further attention to their crew to promote the safety culture vital to the industry’s successful return.

Covid shifted to safety focus

On 14 March 2020, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a no-sail order for cruise vessels to avoid the risk of introducing, transmitting or spreading Covid-19 on board while travelling. Similar words went out from authorities worldwide, and soon the global cruise industry was screeching to a stop. “This was a completely unprecedented situation,” says Solum. “When passenger operations stopped, revenue stopped coming in, and cruise companies were forced into making difficult decisions.” Those decisions included sending vessels into lay-up, reducing crew and staff, and taking on significant debt to maintain liquidity. No one had a clue how long the no-sail period would last. In the end it was 15 months before the first cruise ship set sail again from Miami. 

“I had one executive tell me at that time when operations were restarting that if it had been clear at the beginning of the pandemic how long the industry would be out of commission and just how bad things would get, there wouldn’t be any cruise companies left today,” added Solum. 

Much work was needed to bring the industry back online. Given that most vessels were at reduced manning levels, many shipboard and shore-based positions needed to be filled, making hiring one of the top priorities for operators. Solum explains: “Those who lost their jobs during the pandemic found employment opportunities elsewhere. Many of them didn’t return when the industry restarted, at least not to their previous role. So, to fill the personnel gap, operators had to widen their search more broadly and look at candidates with the right credentials, including those without experience in the cruise industry.” 

Balancing health and safety measures

As cruise operations began again, changes have been made to the safety culture in the industry, Solum says. He acknowledges that many of these changes are a result of the new Covid protocols and procedures established to reduce health risks. “Naturally, much attention is going to the new protocols because the pandemic gripped our lives for such a long time,” he says. In the early days of the pandemic a public perception developed that cruise vessels were Petri dishes for Covid.  

The industry has been working hard to shake this perception. “Cruise lines are actively striving to demonstrate that cruising is safe, but they can only fulfil this promise by strictly enforcing the health procedures and protocols.” Insufficient emphasis on the new protocols increases the risk of a Covid outbreak on board, which would damage the public’s perception of the industry and make it more challenging to sell cruises and secure future revenue.  

However, the expert cautions that operators should be mindful to prevent the necessary extra emphasis on passenger health from overshadowing attention to other areas of safety. “An uptick in the number of near misses has been reported, and we’ve seen more unusual mistakes made on board vessels — not the kind of mistakes commonly made by experienced, seasoned crew. The new procedures are not the only contributing factor to the increase, but the trend is unsettling,” Solum states. 

With safety culture you can never rest on your laurels. It takes continuous effort and attention, and a focus on training and increasing the competence and knowledge of your staff and crew.
Jan Solum

Crew training remains essential for safety

As vessels transition from lay-up to operation, the responsibilities of on-board personnel change, which also plays a role in the overall safety scenario. For those who worked throughout the lay-up period, the new manning arrangements require a mental adjustment. “While the individual responsibilities may change instantly, we are human beings, and we can’t just flip a switch. There is an adjustment period during which subconsciously you might find yourself compelled to continue doing what you were doing before. There is also the fact that every vessel has at least some crew members on board who joined recently from outside the cruise segment, and they may not be accustomed to how things are done in the industry.” It is imperative that operators invest in their personnel and provide continuous training, Solum adds. “This is where the value of running exercises and drills comes in. You don’t want to wait for real-life situations to start training. You want to see how the crew reacts in drills so that you can assess mistakes and correct them.” 

It is essential to recognize this starting point when seeking to improve. “We have extensive training packages in our Maritime Academy, including marine accident and incident investigation training and tools to find opportunities to improve their management system (M-SCAT). We have also learned valuable lessons from the airline industry,” Jan Solum points out. “For example, our Advisory experts can help drive the right behaviour through the use of checklists and digital tools, or by conducting a review of the bridge resource management (BRM) system with a focus on learning from past near misses.” 

Evaluating safety performance helps to improve

By performing DNV’s HOT assessment to evaluate the interdependencies between the human (H), organizational (O) and technological (T) dimensions, it is possible to identify the causes of weaknesses in safety performance and reveal discrepancies between the intended processes of the organization’s safety management system and what happens in reality. 

In some respects, the cruise industry has had to reinvent itself in coming back online, says Solum. “It is almost like tearing down your house and rebuilding it from scratch,” he explains. “Before you begin construction, you need to examine the foundation to check what needs reinforcing. Otherwise, you may overlook something critical that could threaten the integrity of the structure you are building.” 

With safety culture you can never rest on your laurels, he adds. It takes continuous effort and attention, and a focus on training and increasing the competence and knowledge of your staff and crew. “It is essential to take the time to understand your specific risks and ask yourself how you can address them. Reducing the number of near misses, statistically speaking, will lessen the risk of one of those incidents escalating to something greater,” he says. “In our current reality, we must focus on fighting Covid-19, but we can’t lose sight of the bigger safety picture as we continue the successful return of the cruise industry.” 

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Jan Solum

Jan Solum

Director DNV Cruise Center/Area Manager

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