Shipping is possibly the world’s most globalised industry – it is only natural – and has been since we began to transport goods and people. Not only ships and technology have developed as time has passed; there have also been major organisational changes in the shipping industry on land as well as at sea. Cargos and maritime transport are of course bought and sold on the international market, but also manning, technical and legal expertise, IT solutions and many other products and services from specialised companies. These developments have enabled rationalisation of the industry, which should not really be a problem. However, the challenge arrives when networks become so complex and opaque that they affect everyday decision-making.
A few years ago I amused myself by taking a world map and marking on it all the actors that were in any way involved in the operation of the oil tanker Prestige when she sank off the coast of Galicia in 2002. It was a very thought-provoking exercise. We hope we will never experience that type of accident which forces us to take up issues of liability, debt and claims. But there may still be a need to figure out who really does what in the complex network we live and work in – who handles the consequences of unclear and sometimes conflicting rules and who ensures that mandates for financial issues and decisions are clear to all concerned. A friend of mine who still works at sea sometimes jokes that there are four different companies that demand he wears their overalls –all at the same time! I chuckle a little at first, but then start to consider what research has shown us about the reasons for unhealthy workloads, stress, bullying and conflicts at the workplace.
Everything comes down to organisational conditions. Unclear expectations, roles and responsibilities are not only a major risk for the organisational and social work environment. They also steal energy and focus from working groups and can lead to the wrong priorities, poor results and an increased risk of accidents. In the current situation the work environment on Swedish ships has built-in tension, where rules first apply to shore-based personnel before they are formally adopted by the Transport Agency for seagoing personnel – sometimes several years later. The confusion starts that early. Then add the fact that crew members on the same boat may be employed under a number of different contracts. We then zoom out into the world and observe that different authorities and actors have different expectations of their particular sectors and make different demands, which may vary around the world. Sometimes the regulations are not even available in a language we understand. That makes it even more difficult follow them. Just like in a kaleido-scope where the pieces are always changing, it is difficult to get a grip on the overall picture. Who is really responsible for what, and how should things be followed up?
As Winnie the Pooh says when hunting the Heffalump: it’s best to know what you’re looking for before you start to look for it. Of course, it’s especially difficult when you don’t even know which overall the Heffalump is wearing.”