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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.

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                                                                                                                              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.

 

References:

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The Round-Table: Making Ship-board Meetings Matter

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“I don’t agree to meetings or calls with no clear agenda or end time. If the desired outcome is defined clearly with a stated objective and agenda listing topics or questions to cover, no meeting or call should last more than 30 minutes. Request them in advance so you can best prepare and make good use of the time together.”

                                                                                                                                                        - Tim Ferris, the author of “The 4-hour Workweek

 

 

 

 

On a fine day in early 2005, the Master of the ro-pax ship Arahura planned to carry out an emergency steering drill as was required by regulation. Usually the crew tested the non-follow up (NFU) system for the drill but on this occasion, the Master decided to test the steering with the solenoid valves in the machinery space. Problem was, he didn't inform anyone else of his intentions until the last moment.

The Master went down to the steering gear where he found that the 1st Engineer was not available due to some other priority work. The Chief Engineer expressed his concern of carrying out this unplanned procedure but the Master insisted, based on his experience with a sister ship. When ordered to move the rudder to starboard, the crewmember operating the solenoids, due to an incorrect marking with the solenoids, moved the rudder to port.

On the Wheelhouse, the 3rd Officer and Cadet were unaware of the details of the steering drill. And when the rudder went mistakenly to port, they informed the Master of the need to put the helm to starboard but did not mention the presence of another ship in the vicinity. The Arahura now started swinging wildly to starboard and due to the alertness of the crew on the other ship, missed a collision by just 3 cables.

Among other factors, the investigating authority, Maritime New Zealand found that:
• The Master of Arahura did not hold a prior meeting with the senior engineering officers to discuss the technical aspects of the drill.
• The Master did not inform the drill team or bridge that the execution of the drill would involve a different test method.
• The Master did not hold a pre-planning meeting to discuss the drill and how it would differ from the test method that had been used previously.

Meetings are where team focus is achieved. Here, we set up an atmosphere where the team members get comfortable communicating with each other. These meetings are very important for safety so each person knows what the others are doing and they avoid incompatible tasks. It’s also a good place to share problems so you can get inputs and even offers to assist from the rest of the team.

Here’s how to make meetings effective, whether at sea or on land:

1. Set up meetings at regular intervals. Don’t just have them when you’re having problems. The MAIB investigated a fire-related fatality on the Arco Avon where the third Engineer had worked on a failed fuel pipe without informing anyone. His reason for not doing so is likely to have been influenced by the on-board culture of routine lone working and absence of regular and frequent communication.

While it is very tempting to put off meetings under the pretext of being busy, my experience has taught me that these meetings should not be cancelled unless there’s a pressing reason to do so. You’ll be amazed at how many new challenges come to light during such meetings.

2. Cap them at 30 minutes. Start and finish on time; finish earlier if no one has anything more to add.

3. Always announce the agenda at the outset. It helps people to prepare and set expectations. A template helps to get the meeting off to a quick start and in the required direction. When you structure your meeting, the entire crew will appreciate your taking their valuable time into consideration.

4. Set an amiable atmosphere. Sit or stand in circles. Prohibit the use of electronic devices unless it’s for taking notes or referring to the agenda.

Meeting on ship cartoon

 Sketch by VS Parani in a moment of inspiration.

 

5. Take notes. Record comments and draft an action plan.

6. Encourage participation. Meetings are not the place to display authority, order, shout, argue, or preach. Limit the time each participant gets to speak. Draw out reluctant speakers by asking them open-ended questions such as: Is there anything we have not considered?

On the bulk carrier, the Great Majesty, the Master, Chief Engineer and Chief Mate met to discuss the operability of the ballast pumps. The Chief Engineer simply replied that one of the pumps could not be used. The Chief Mate did not seek to clarify if there were any other restrictions in using the ballast system, neither did the Chief Engineer elaborate.

Actually, when the ballast pump was disassembled for repair, the suction pipe and valves were not isolated. When the Chief Mate remotely opened the pump’s suction valves, the open pump’s casing was connected to the main seawater line, which resulted in the flooding of the Engine Room.

7. Conclude. Discussions are great teamwork tools, but they must always end in action plans. The last two minutes of the meeting should be spent summarising who will do what, by when, and how you will communicate.

8. Motivate and Energise. I’ve always found meetings to be a good way to connect with and motivate my team. Getting an opportunity to speak also helps team members build self-confidence. In addition, regular meetings help assess people’s individual capabilities, which is very important for a leader to know.

Meetings are a great opportunity to clarify issues, sharpen focus and align the team with the objectives. They help support a robust safety culture on the ship. Meetings are a great leadership and teamwork tool, and effective leaders run productive meetings.

What else do you do to make your meetings matter?

 

 

References:

Accident Report Arahura & Santa Regina Close Quarters Situation in Cook Strait on 27 January 2005

Marine Accident Investigation Branch, U.K., Report no: 17/2016, Arco Avon

ATSB Transport Safety Report Marine Occurrence Investigation No.257, Engine room flooding on board Great Majesty

Effective meetings are discussed in greated detail in the book Golden Stripes- Leadership on the High Seas, available from Whittles Publishing, and on Amazon.

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Leading with Love

MTS logo smallWhen I joined sea as a deck cadet, I was paid a stipend equivalent to 50 US dollars a month. But then, I was 17 years old and fresh out of school. My food and boarding were free on the ship.

At that time, the rumour was that the company was going to close down, and we would not be able to complete our sea-time required for cadetship. So I made a decision to complete it all at one go - almost 37 months onboard, without returning home on leave. That way, I could appear for my third mate's exams and start earn a proper living. I joined my first ship as a boy, and returned home a man.

 

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