The safety of employees is one of the most, if not the most, important concerns for shipping companies. Vessel-based employees face day-to-day perils that are not encountered by the average office worker. The shipping industry has made great strides in improving safety over the years through improved training programmes, safety policies and safety programmes. All of these initiatives combine to create a maritime culture that embraces safety.

Overview

Many safety programmes use a safety bonus/incentive system to reward employees who operate in a safe manner. Although each plan is slightly different, virtually all provide some sort of bonus to the members of a vessel crew if a certain period of time elapses without a reportable lost time accident. Incentivising safety is a great idea. It goes a long way towards keeping crew members focused on safety. It also moves safety away from being purely an individual concern to a responsibility shared by the entire crew. No one could disagree with the aspirations of such a programme.

However, although safety bonus/incentive programmes go a long way towards motivating employees to operate in a safe manner, there are several concerns to consider when designing or modifying such a programme. These include:

  • the potential for incentivising the repression of incident reporting;
  • the potential that employees could intimidate an injured employee and dissuade him or her from reporting an accident; or
  • the risk of the crew misclassifying potential accidents in the hope of preserving safety bonuses.

You do not want to discourage employees from reporting an incident or give them any discretion in determining whether to report one. It is important that crew members report all injuries, illnesses, incidents and near misses to their supervisors in a timely manner. This allows management to properly monitor risks, which makes operations safer, but also ensures that employees quickly receive the proper medical attention before their injuries worsen due to continued work aboard the vessel.

Although it may seem illogical, employees may decide against reporting their accidents in an effort to preserve the safety bonus record. No one wants to be the employee who took his or her focus off the job and suffered an injury, much less the employee who cost the entire crew a safety award. As a result, employees may be discouraged from reporting injuries in a timely manner.

This is exactly the type of behaviour that a safety programme should seek to discourage. A safety bonus/incentive programme must therefore take into account incident reporting as a required component and provide some leeway so that a minor reportable incident or illness, for example, will not automatically cause the crew to lose their bonus. Encouraging the reporting of incidents, illnesses or near misses for all events can create a culture of reporting that will make incident reporting second nature and not something to be weighed against the desire to receive a bonus.

Employee intimidation is a potential problem, as employees may attempt to dissuade an injured crew member from reporting the incident. Unfortunately, it is possible that other crew members could remind the injured crew member that reporting the incident could cost them the bonus. Essentially, they could try to discourage the injured employee from reporting the incident to management.

This pressure can keep employees from reporting incidents in a timely manner and seeking out and receiving the appropriate medical care. The lack of timely reporting also prevents the company from conducting a proper investigation to determine what occurred. Again, all safety bonus programmes should attempt to minimise this pressure.

Another area of potential abuse is the improper classification of incidents. It is possible that an employee may suffer an injury while working aboard the vessel, but report that he or she sustained an injury that was not 'work related' when, in fact, it was. The employee may allege that this non-work related injury manifested itself while he or she was in the service of the ship and request maintenance and cure. At the same time, the vessel's safety record remains intact. Although the crew member will usually receive the required medical care in this scenario, the company loses the opportunity to conduct an investigation and determine the cause of the incident, thus losing the opportunity to improve the safety of its operations. Furthermore, after the bonus is paid and the injured employee retains an attorney, the employee may change his or her story, report that the injury was work related and then blame the lie on the pressure created by the safety bonus system.

Improving safety programmes

Although it is impossible to prevent all of these problems, modifying your programme may help to alleviate some of the pressure. Every company's safety incentive programme is different, so a discussion of all potential modifications is beyond the scope of this update. However, the following are some ideas that you may be able to use to fine tune your programmes.

Consider incentivising the reporting of incidents, near misses, illnesses and injuries. This creates a culture where all incidents must be reported, regardless of whether they are a serious concern. You want your crew to be in the habit of reporting anything from a headache, toothache or hangnail to a serious injury, without worrying about the safety bonus programme. You can encourage the culture of reporting by creating a quota and reward system mandating that employees submit a certain number of safety suggestions, near-miss reports or incident reports.

Although it sounds counterintuitive, rewarding employees with a bonus for reporting incidents may actually save the company money in the long run. The more incidents that are reported, the sooner the risk department can identify tasks or jobs that are potentially unsafe and adopt policies that minimise the risk. This will provide the company with long-term savings.

In the short term, you may have additional incidents reported that you may not have heard of otherwise, but the immediate notification of an incident allows your risk management team, and your attorneys, to quickly conduct an investigation and determine what caused the incident and evaluate any potential liability for this particular claim. Although this type of investigation could be conducted later, it is always more effective to take witness statements and conduct the investigation while employees are still employed by the company and the incident is fresh in their minds. Thus, it may make sense to incentivise both the reporting of incidents and time without an accident.

The peer pressure directed towards an injured employee by co-workers is slightly harder to address. An incentive programme should include penal measures that punish any employees who try to convince or intimidate another employee into not reporting an incident. Although no one wants to lose a good employee, anyone involved in such an infraction should be immediately terminated. The potential loss of a job trumps any small incentive bonus, so this kind of penal provision should eliminate such intimidation.

The improper classification of incidents can be resolved through proper training. Employees may attempt to manipulate the employee's medical treatment or misclassify an injury to avoid having it considered as a lost time incident. This behaviour is often based on a misunderstanding of the programme's rules and is unnecessary. As such, it is important that all employees are trained and educated on the specifics of the system and the company's requirements for the reporting of all incidents.

Comment

Safety incentive/bonus programmes are a great tool to encourage employees to be safe. If a crew can make one, two or 10 years without a lost time accident, they should be rewarded.

For further information please contact Lawrence R DeMarcay at Fowler Rodriguez by telephone (+1 504 523 2600) or email (ldemarcay@frfirm.com). The Fowler Rodriguez website can be accessed at www.frfirm.com.

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