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Tool-Box Meetings: A Valuable Safety-Leadership Tool

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“Toolbox talks can be a particularly useful way of ensuring a common understanding of how even the most basic tasks are to be carried out. If you don’t already conduct toolbox talks on your vessel, give it a go! You will be surprised at how effective these are at improving risk awareness and encouraging better, safer ways of working.”

-Steve Clinch, Chief Inspector of Marine Accidents, UK MAIB



The anchor-handling-supply vessel Skandi Skansen was to start a charter which required the current gypsy to be replaced with an 84 mm one. The new gypsy weighed close to a ton and required a crane to lift it onto the chain hauler guide rails. Six members of the crew- the crane driver, the bosun, and four able seamen participated in a tool-box meeting before the operation.

However, as the gypsy was being lowered, only one rim of the gypsy fell into position, causing the heavy gypsy to become unbalanced. The gypsy tipped over to one side, crushing one of the seamen on the chest and trapping him against a nearby bulkhead. He succumbed to the injuries before he could be transported to the hospital.

The Bahamas Maritime Authority, during its investigation found that during the tool-box meeting, the risk of the gypsy toppling was not considered. In fact, the risk assessment for the job only considered the dangers of working at height but not the dangers involving moving a heavy, unwieldy piece of steel. Additionally, the supervising officer was not present, neither for the tool-box meeting, nor to monitor the actual job.

A tool-box meeting which discusses an inadequate risk-assessment is no good. Worse still, is not doing it at all. Shore workers boarded the BBC Baltic at Port Hedland to cut the securing lugs in the cargo hold. All the precautions listed on the ship’s hot work permit were not taken nor was the permit completed properly. Furthermore, a tool box meeting was not held to discuss the work and risk, define roles and responsibilities, and the action to take in case of a fire. Eventually, a tarpaulin near the work site caught fire, and soon spread to the extent that the harbour tug had to assist in fighting the fire.


                                                                                                                              Sketch by VS Parani

Tool-box meetings are meetings of a shorter duration conducted just before the start of the work day, or before a complicated operation. These are an effective safety-management tool but as you read above, we don’t always get it right. Here’s how to:

1. Have them every day. Even if it’s work ‘as usual’, these meetings help deliver last-minute reminders as well as create the right frame of mind before your team begins their work. A quick reminder to ‘stay clear of ropes under tension’, or ‘don’t stand under the piston while it’s being lifted’ helps.

Besides, the weather may be rough or there may be another factor which would significantly alter the risk levels from the previous day.

2. Conduct a thorough risk-assessment before the meeting. The senior officer in charge of planning and following up the task should ensure all risks are thoroughly assessed and recorded. Consult with the office or other departments as required by the safety management system. You will be mainly referring to this risk-assessment and relevant permits-to-work during the tool-box meeting.

3. Involve the crew undertaking the task. I’ve observed that on some ships, the risk assessment is discussed only with the Bosun or the Fitter. They in turn pass on the instructions to the remaining crew. I don’t recommend it. Every crew member (and any shore/ riding teams) should be present in the meeting involving the tasks that they are about to undertake.

4. Cap them at 10 minutes. You should have already prepared the risk-assessment form in advance so use the meeting only to review it and exchange additional information.

5. ‘Walk-through’ the tasks. During the meeting, discuss the risk-assessment and create a mental picture of how the work would flow.

When relevant to the task at hand- share a story, or a safety bulletin which can improve risk awareness. A monotonous repetition of the risk-assessment will quickly make it a drag.

Sometimes you can demonstrate best-practices, such as the proper way to use an angle-grinder.

6. Encourage questions. Tool-box meetings are not one way briefings. In fact, ask questions early on into the meeting. Ask the Able Seaman what safety precautions he intends to take. Ask the Bosun if there’s something else he’d like to add to that. You can then add to his list your own points from the risk-assessment form.

7. Listen. Respectfully acknowledge any apprehension raised by your team. If someone feels the job should not commence unless additional safety precautions are taken, evaluate the risks again with your team. Follow it through and don’t be defensive.

At the same time, not everyone is comfortable in expressing their doubts so be aware of body language cues. If you see the oiler clearing his throat, scratching his head or shuffling his feet- respectfully ask him ‘Shall I repeat this?’, or ‘if you have something to say, share it with us’.

8. Motivate and Energize. Strive to conduct your meetings with enthusiasm and positivity. This will help your team proceeds to their respective tasks with focus and clarity.

Make it interesting by sometimes sharing a safety slogan; for example, ‘Safety glasses: All in favor say “Eye!”

Follow up the tool-box meetings with proper supervision and verify that the work has been carried out to your expectation.

Tool-Box meetings done regularly and properly help strengthen the safety culture onboard. Tool-box meetings are an effective safety leadership tool. Don’t start your day without it.



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Two Groundings, One Safety-Culture







A culture of safety starts with leadership, because leadership drives culture and culture drives behaviour. Leaders influence culture by setting expectations, building structure, teaching others and demonstrating stewardship’.
- Rex W Tillerson, Chairman and CEO, Exxon Mobil, and 69th US Secretary of State

In February 2015, while on passage from Belfast to Skogn, Norway the general cargo vessel Lysblink Seaways ran aground at full speed, near Kilchoan, West Scotland.
The Lysfoss ran aground in 2001, under similar circumstances while on passage from Lysekil in Sweden to Belfast.

The first three alphabets of the two ship’s names are the same. So, are their groundings a coincidence? Not when you consider that the UK MAIB found that the ships shared a similarly deficient safety culture. The findings indicated that the shortcomings identified with the Lys Line safety culture in 2001 were still prevalent on Lysblink Seaways at the time of the accident, despite the change of ownership. But how can we explain the concept of safety culture to seafarers?

Models help us understand abstract concepts. And if it’s based on something familiar, even better. That’s why in my book Golden Stripes- Leadership on the High Seas, under the section Safety Leadership, I’ve explained the concepts of safety management and safety culture through the Safe-Man model - based on the popular Pac-Man game.

safety culture

Imagine yourself and your shipmates as Safe-Men (Safe-Man 1 and 2). The game is to fulfil a task, such as navigating through a narrow channel, carrying out a crank-case inspection, or hot-work in a tank. Implementing all the safety management barriers such as checklists, use of required equipment help us work in the ‘Safe Zone’, where the risks are reasonably low.
Now, three of the devils (Hazard, Risk, and Accident) are locked under barriers, while one (Unexpected New Hazard) roams free trying to catch you by surprise. Throughout the game you also watch out for the other members of your team. Because if any of the devils catch even one of your crew or ships (Safe-Men), the game ends.

The game also has power pellets, or energizers which once eaten by Pac-Man weaken the devils while gaining him more points. Similarly, a robust safety culture is the energiser which helps the Safe-Men carry out their tasks every day, while keeping dangers at bay.

Like all good things in life, a good safety culture doesn’t just happen. It requires intentional leadership to create, maintain, and inspire such a culture. In fact, every member of the team should feel enthusiastic, even overzealous, about their safety culture. This is where safety moves from the realm of safety management to safety leadership. Here are my seven leadership strategies for a strong safety culture:
1. Create symbols
2. Open feedback channels
3. ‘Hands-On’ risk management
4. Share stories
5. Enforce Routines
6. Reinforce
7. Decide ‘safety-first’

On the Lysblink Seaways, the Chief Officer had consumed half a litre of rum before his night navigation watch. He fell asleep and missed an alteration of course. The ship grounded on a rocky shore at a speed of over 13 knots. The ship was later declared a total loss. Though this may seem like the reckless act of an individual, the investigation report found that there were systemic failures in safety leadership.

An earlier audit had found that the navigators had not renewed their 5-yearly Bridge Resource Management Training as required by the Flag-State rules. A Flag State recommendation required another crew member to be placed as a look-out during darkness hours but this was not done. On this ship, it had become regular practice to disregard the company procedure of using the dedicated ‘dead-man’ alarm system. The ‘enforce routines’ power-pellet was never used, weakening the safe-man’s ability to play the game.

Random alcohol tests were never carried out on this ship. These ‘feedback channels’ were not utilized. The significant consumption of alcohol by the crew from the ship’s bonded stores was not flagged by the company. Many of the findings regarding the implementation of the safety-management manual which came to light after the accident should have been identified during routine internal audits. The ‘reinforce’ energizer was not used effectively.

The company which operated the Lysblink Seaways had few years earlier, bought the company which operated the Lysfoss but the lessons from the Lysfoss grounding had not been applied on the Lysblink Seaways. Not ‘sharing stories’ meant one safe-man could not learn from the other.

On the Lysfoss, detailed passage-plans and master-night-order book were not used, which otherwise are powerful ‘symbols’ of a working safety management system.
The investigation report also found that the master’s familiarity with the navigation routes had caused him to adopt a relaxed attitude to the proximity of navigational dangers. ‘Hands-On risk management’ and safety leadership was lacking.

Research shows that workplaces with a healthy culture are 49% less likely to have accidents and 60% less likely to make errors in their work. Help your colleagues understand how safety culture provides us the energy to work safely, day after day. Feel free to use the Safe-Man model to explain how it works. Do remember that poor safety culture can ground a ship- maybe even two.


Captain VS Parani, FNI, FICS, CMarTech-IMarEST is the author of Golden Stripes- Leadership on the High Seas, the world’s first book on leadership for mariners, by a merchant-mariner. Whittles Publishing, ISBN: 978-184995-314-6. He can be reached at (

Reference: MAIB report 23/2002 (Lysfoss) and MAIB report 25/2015 (Lysblink Seaways)

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