Ranking safety at sea

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell is a fascinating read and the section on aviation safety must surely have some bearing on the marine industry too.

In discussing a spurt of incidents attributed to one specific airline, Gladwell highlights a concept called the “Power Distance Index” (PDI).

“Power Distance is concerned with attitudes towards hierarchy, specifically with how much a particular culture values and respects authority,” he writes explaining that cultures with a high PDI will pay particular heed to levels of hierarchy and individuals will interact with each other strictly according to those hierarchies.

How this translates to behaviour in the cockpit (and arguably on the bridge of a ship) is simple. The captain is in command and his (or her) decisions should not be questioned if you are of a lower rank. Now, as rank and command are integral to the aviation and marine world, one would be forgiven for assuming that this is the correct order of business.

In his book, however, Gladwell uncovers the dangers of a high PDI culture. In investigating the series of accidents and listening to the black box recordings of cockpit communication – it was discovered that the WAY in which the lower ranks communicated with the captain had direct bearing on the actual incident.

The Korean crew (with a high PDI cultural background) understood that the hierarchy within the cockpit needed to be respected. And so, even when they saw their superiors making a dubious decision, they felt they could not undermine their authority by bringing direct attention to it.

And so the black box transcripts document their attempts to hint at potentially disastrous decisions. They simply were unable to voice a different opinion – and the captain at this stage was just too tired to pick up on the hints.

According to Gladwell it was this single discovery that marked a significant turnaround in aviation safety. Airlines began to concentrate on creating a new culture in the cockpit that allowed for the co-pilot to question authority and a specific set of prompts was created that ensured that neither the captain nor the other crew felt they were overstepping the mark.

In a very interesting footnote Gladwell lists the five highest rating PDI countries and the five lowest rating PDI countries:

Highest PDI’s:

  1. Brazil
  2. South Korea
  3. Morocco
  4. Mexico
  5. Philippines

Lowest PDI’s:

  1. United States
  2. Ireland
  3. South Africa
  4. Australia
  5. New Zealand

Remember that in this case it is better to be listed in the lowest PDI rankings. Surely this bodes well for SAMSA’s vision of creating a nation of seafarers?





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