Thank you for subscribing to Seavoices’ updates!

Please take a moment to check your email inbox and confirm your subscription to start receiving the latest news and updates.

24 May 2024
6 mins
Making Safety Top Priority – A Battle for the Heart and Mind

An interview with Ms. Christina Cheh, Vice President, Health, Safety, Environment and Quality, Wilhelmsen Ship Management

When Christina sailed as a cadet, she wrote letters home to stay in touch. It took a while for the much-awaited replies to arrive through the postal system. She has witnessed the evolution of the maritime industry over the years, while working her way up to Chief Officer and later, progressing through safety and operations roles at Wilhelmsen Ship Management. SeaVoices speaks with her on her current role helping ship owners run their vessels safely. 

What are some key developments in shipping and their implications on safety?

Vessels are getting more efficient and navigation technology more advanced. These translate into shorter voyages. For crew members, there’s a lot of pressure to complete the required tasks within a shorter time frame. In the rush, there are more room for certain safety protocols to be overlooked.

The systems onboard have become more complex. The implementation of decarbonisation technologies, such as scrubbers, exhaust gas cleaning systems, or ballast water treatment systems and complying with emissions regulations means more is required of seafarers. The same skillset that had kept them safe and effective are no longer adequate and will need to be enhanced.


Communication technology such as WIFI is a double-edged sword. It provides comfort and joy for crew members. Thanks to WIFI, the gap between sea and shore is reduced almost instantaneously. But personal mobiles can be a source of distraction and danger if not managed adequately.

How can shipping companies implement a safety programme that is relevant to the times?

The starting point is a Safety Management System (SMS). We help our clients establish one that encompasses key aspects of their ship and shore operations. The purpose of the SMS is to guide leaders and staff in undertaking risk identification, assessment and mitigation. It spells out the procedures for safe navigation, emergency preparedness, pollution prevention and crew training.

The regulatory landscape is dynamic. We monitor closely the developments taking place. We collaborate with classification societies, regulatory bodies, and industry partners to stay informed of the requirements and best practices. We attend training programmes which provide opportunities for professional exchanges with our industry counterparts and beyond. By upgrading and updating our knowledge, we can value-add to our clients’ business.  

What are the challenges you face in your work? 

Getting buy-in from all levels of staff to make safety a top priority. Top management is concerned about good safety records as well as costs. Supervisors and the rank-and-file, are focused on the increased workload and the need for documentation and audits.

The SMS is getting thicker with time. I’ve been asked this question quite often: “Will doing all of these contribute to a safer workplace?” Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer. But I think we have to watch out for the tipping point when regulations cease to be effective as a result of fatigue and apathy. The industry must take note. We can be the eyes and ears to gather sentiments and feedback for regulators to consider when they enact new laws. 

What can shipping companies do to build a safety culture? 

It’s important to get people involved. Give them a sense of ownership so it’s visible that “safety is everyone’s business”. Promote a behaviour or mindset through campaigns, slogans and mottos. This strengthens the team or company’s identity. Its members would be proud to say “this is what we do here”. Involve senior leaders whose endorsement of the safety agenda is very important. We must be creative in our methods. This is a battle for hearts and minds, to win people over to a cause.

Our CEO sends messages to ships. One spokesperson is not enough – we have a safety mascot, Wilma. Its attributes are immediately relatable – an aquatic animal (octopus) with many arms symbolising the multitasking workforce.  We use it to communicate to officers and crew the importance of putting safety first, ahead of the many things they juggle. We organise hazard hunts, a very popular activity, and give prizes for some of the best submissions. This is a good way to involve people in playing a part for safety, while having fun in the process.

In our experience, staff retention is beneficial towards sustaining safety culture. Staff who have been in the company longer can guide the newcomers. They contribute very useful insights especially when it comes to planning drills.

What are some of the attitudes or behaviours that are helpful for advancing safety?

Cliched though it may sound, prevention is better than cure. Accidents are costly and losses of lives and limbs are irreversible. We would want to avoid them as best we can. The identification and removal of hazards is proactive compared with the attitude “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it”. Staff should not be reprimanded for reporting near misses they encounter, or for speaking up about unsafe conditions such as breaches in the administration of hours of work and rest.

Complacency is an enemy. Danger strikes when you let off your guard. If you plan to enter the cargo hold without your PPE (personal protective equipment) this time because there had been no untoward incidents hitherto, think again. Whether it’s PPE or safety belts in cars, the risk of omission is just not worth taking.      

The most impactful of behaviours is done voluntarily when no one is looking. When crew members go on shore leave, we send them safety tips and good practices. If they do their part in internalising the discipline and responsible behaviours, their well-being is protected wherever they go. When the time comes for the next assignment, it’s easier to rejoin and settle in.  

Thank you, Christina, for your time and expertise. Anything you would like to say to our readers?

Trust the safety management system in your company. Work with it. Give feedback on what can be done better. Let’s improve together!