Why Maritime Safety Cultures are Hard to Change (It’s Not All Bad News)

This is the third article in a series on establishing a healthy safety culture in the maritime industry. The first article provided an overview of the necessary ingredients of a healthy safety culture. The second article presented an interview with a master mariner and expert on maritime safety cultures, Capt. John Wright. This third article takes a different approach to the same topic, looking at human nature and how it influences the creation and maintenance of a healthy safety culture.

It turns out that the human element as it relates to safety culture is both fascinating and important. Anyone involved in maritime safety needs to have, minimally, a basic understanding of how human nature influences organizational safety attitudes and performance. This article looks at one very important aspect of human nature which explains why it is difficult (but I stress, not impossible) to improve organizational safety cultures.

But it’s not all bad news. It turns out that the same human trait that makes cultures hard to improve can also help an organization maintain a healthy safety culture once it is achieved. The trait I am referring to is explained by something called the “broken window” theory of human behavior. An understanding of it will help you both improve and maintain a healthy safety culture in your maritime organization.

We begin with an explanation of the broken window theory, and then move to a description of how this helps us implement a healthy safety culture in the maritime industry.

The Broken Window Theory

The broken window theory was introduced in 1982 by two Harvard professors, James Wilson and George Kelling. If you are interested, the full text of their paper introducing the idea can be found here. If you look at it, you’ll see that it is actually a paper about crime and neighborhood safety. However, the trait they identified has come to be recognized as influencing people in many domains apart from crime –  all the way from software engineering to maintaining cleanliness and everything in between. It is easy to argue that it has an effect on organizational safety culture.  So what is the broken window theory?

The broken window theory is essentially one of escalation of behavior based on social norms. Using crime as the topic (as the paper did), the theory essentially says that crimes, even a small number of comparatively small crimes, if not addressed, lead to more and bigger crimes. The converse is also true. If crimes (even small ones) are addressed quickly, then this leads to a reduction in crimes – even major crimes. The idea is that crime rates are influenced by the perception of what is acceptable in the “community”. If there is a perception that the community is one that will not accept crime of any kind, then crime rates go down. If the perception is that the community is accepting of crime (i.e. “everyone does it”), then crime rates go up. This may seem obvious, but there are some subtle implications.

Not only are the immediate actions of community members influenced by what is considered socially acceptable behavior, but the cycle is further perpetuated by, for example, the influence that the perception has on people moving into and out of the community. Still using crime rates as an example, when a community is accepting of crime, this tends to cause other crime-accepting people to move in, and crime-abhorring people to move out.

The Experiment

In one experiment that illustrates the theory, a car without license plates was placed on a street in an affluent neighborhood in California. It sat, untouched, for more than a week. After the week had passed, those in charge of the experiment smashed part of the car with a hammer. Shortly after, passersby began to smash the car and within a few hours many joined in, destroying the car. How could this happen in an otherwise low-crime community? Consider the signals that the car “gave off” to the members of the community.

The original, intact car provided a strong social signal: despite the car being abandoned, it was intact and therefore demonstrated to community members that it was clearly unacceptable to destroy it. Similarly, the initial destruction performed by the experimenters caused the car to give off a social signal, but of a different variety. It said that it apparently *is* socially acceptable to cause damage to an abandoned vehicle. This one signal led to more smashing by a group of people most susceptible to the message. Their further destruction created yet a stronger signal, resulting in a cycle which ended in the complete destruction of the car. As Wilson and Kelling put it: “one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares and so breaking more windows costs nothing”. One window leads to two, two lead to four, and so on.

Interestingly, the authors found that the described effect worked even on people who would normally consider themselves law abiding. In other words, many people who were normally law abiding quickly joined in on the destructive action once their community signaled to them that this was acceptable behavior.

The social signals can cause escalation not only because community activity spreads to existing community members (which it does), but also because such behavior will tend to attract others who are already predisposed to similar behavior. Thus not only is the behavior of the community changed over time, but similarly the composition of the community is changed – from generally law-abiding individuals to those who tend to be less so. This, of course, further perpetuates the negative cycle.

Unlike some theories, this one has a very practical application because it works both ways. Just as social acceptance of crime increases the crime rate, social rejection of crime reduces it. In the 1990’s, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani enacted a policy whereby small crimes such as transit fare evasion, graffiti and public drunkenness were targeted aggressively. Targeting these crimes reduced their occurrence (and therefore the evidence of crime), and sent a strong social signal that crime was not acceptable. The “broken windows” went away.  The result was that crime across the board fell significantly.

What does this tell us about maritime safety culture?

Maritime “Broken Windows”

It is pretty easy to imagine how these social signals and acceptable community behavior can apply to an  organizational safety culture – both in terms of improving a poor existing safety culture and in terms of maintaining a healthy safety culture. It is all about:

  1. defining acceptable community behavior,
  2. signaling that behavior consistently,
  3. and giving community members (employees) the tools they need  to conform to community expectations (safety training, well maintained equipment, etc).

The first item, defining acceptable community behavior, is comparatively easy. In terms of safety culture, acceptable behavior means things like understanding and being competent at safe operations, it means always doing the safe thing (even when no one is looking – as we spoke about in the previous article), it means identifying and reporting unsafe situations and doing your part to ensure they are corrected, and it means always communicating the safety message to other community members (the people you work with). There is more to this than presented here, but defining safe operations is not generally difficult.

Likewise, the third item is relatively straightforward. You either do it or you don’t. There is no excuse for inadequate training or unsafe equipment or procedures. As mentioned in previous articles there are inexpensive and highly effective training techniques available. A large body of studies exists to inform us on how to train effectively. The use of technology puts cost-effective, high quality training and measurement of results at our fingertips. All that is required is to do a little research in order to understand what works and implement it. It does not have to be difficult or expensive.

Repairing The Broken Windows

It is the second item in the list above that, in many ways, is the most critical. The broken window theory tells us that in order to improve safety in an organization, it must be clear to each employee that the people they work with (their community) all consider safe operations paramount. In an organization with an unhealthy safety culture, this presents a bit of a chicken and egg problem. Individuals are unlikely to take safety seriously until the rest of the community does. And the community, by definition, will not take it seriously until each individual does. This is why unsafe cultures are difficult and slow to repair. But it can be done.

The ways in which we can get around this issue were discussed in the previous two articles. But to recap, they include:

  • A firm, clear, visible and persistent commitment to safety beginning at the top.
  • Clear safety messaging throughout the organization.
  • A fair “blame” culture where accidents and near-misses are used as learning opportunities rather than a cause for punishment.
  • The identification of safety “ambassadors” throughout the organization.
  • A commitment to safety (and therefore each employee) through the implementation of best-practice training.
  • Transparent communications between top management and all employees on safety initiatives, successes, shortcomings and safety metrics.

By implementing the practices above, the process of changing safety attitudes among all employees is “bootstrapped”. Those employees who are predisposed to perform safely absorb the message from management and start to perform more safely. Many of them will become safety ambassadors and demonstrate a commitment to safety to other employees. Those people will influence the next “tier” of safety-minded employees through their actions, drawing them to the message (and acts) of safety. That larger audience will again more widely demonstrate that the community is committed to safe operations and that performing in an unsafe way will not be tolerated. Ultimately, the majority of employees will absorb the message. Now a culture of safe operations exists. It is a community norm. People who can’t adapt will be at odds with their community making them more likely to find employment elsewhere. People who are predisposed to safety will be inclined to seek work at this organization because they will be joining a community with a compatible value system.

Now that safe operations are a community value, the same “broken window” effect tends to make them self-sufficient. As indicated above, people predisposed to safety will be drawn to the organization and, once there, will do things which perpetuate the safety culture. They will perform safely, they will report near misses, they will become safety ambassadors, and so on. Ultimately, some of them will become management who will, in turn, continue to communicate safety and implement policies which perpetuate the safe culture.


The broken window theory explains why unsafe cultures are difficult and slow to change. However, the same theory has a very positive side in that is also explains why companies who have been able to establish a healthy safety culture tend to keep (and improve) it. The theory both provides a lot of guidance for the journey toward safety and helps prepare us for that journey.


About The Author:

Murray Goldberg is the founder and President of Marine Learning Systems (www.marinels.com), the creator of MarineLMS – the learning management system designed specifically for maritime industry training. Murray began research in eLearning in 1995 as a faculty member of Computer Science at the University of British Columbia. He went on to create WebCT, the world’s first commercially successful LMS for higher education; serving 14 million students in 80 countries. Murray has won over a dozen University, National and International awards for teaching excellence and his pioneering contributions to the field of educational technology. Now, in Marine Learning Systems, Murray is hoping to play a part in advancing the art and science of learning in the maritime industry.

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