Making Maritime Public Health Compliance Cool

An image of a dog in sunglasses with a cocktail on the beach, with the words Making Maritime Public Health Compliance Cool

Bob McDonald, the former CEO and Chairman of Procter & Gamble, once remarked that “Compliance isn’t about following rules. It’s about doing the right thing.” In the field of maritime public health, this principle holds particular significance as it translates to ship owners and operators doing all they can to protect the health of their crew and passengers.

Compliance is rarely thought of as “cool” because it involves adherence to rules. It lacks the allure of innovation or the thrill associated with launching a new ship. Compliance is like a hall monitor in school insisting you walk when all you want to do is run. It’s akin to our parents at the dinner table insisting we eat our vegetables first before indulging in dessert. At times, compliance is even perceived as an obstruction to progress.

Whether compliance is met with enthusiasm or reluctance, it remains an inescapable reality. While it is widely recognized that adherence to public health regulations is a non-negotiable aspect of maritime operations, the challenge lies in transforming this prerequisite into something that is willingly embraced—we need to make compliance cool. The question is, how can this be achieved?

What is Compliance?

Originating from the Latin verb “complere”, meaning to fulfill or fill up, compliance emerged as a popular term towards the end of the 20th century. During the 1970s in the United States, an investigation conducted by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) revealed that numerous American companies were involved in widespread bribery of foreign officials to advance their commercial interests.

Corporate compliance at this time was generally treated as a formality, passively addressed through codes of conduct and value statements that carried little significance. However, in the two decades that followed the introduction of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) in 1977—a legislative response to the SEC’s findings—there was a noticeable shift in the approach to compliance. Companies started to actively develop compliance programs, recognizing the increasing legal risks and potential for prosecution due to unlawful activities of their employees and representatives

It was around this time in the early 1990s that the International Maritime Organization (IMO) first introduced the ISM Code, establishing an international standard for the safe management and operation of ships. The main aims of the ISM Code are to ensure safety at sea, prevent human injury or loss of life, and to avoid damage to property and pollution of the marine environment.

Within the maritime sector, shipboard operational compliance is primarily categorized into four main areas:

  • Safety
  • Environmental
  • Health
  • Security

Public health—which falls within the broader ‘Health’ category alongside clinical care—frequently doesn’t receive the same level of recognition as its counterparts. Moreover, there is a common feeling of “COVID-19 fatigue” throughout the maritime industry at present: a prevailing desire to leave the pandemic in the past and move forward. Essentially, public health has had its share of the spotlight and now it’s time to focus on other topics.

Although the consequences of a ship running aground, marine pollution, or acts of piracy are immediately evident, the effects of insufficient public health measures are not always as apparent. This lack of immediate visibility could explain why public health standards are occasionally compromised or “relaxed” to accommodate on board operations. For example, instances where food is not protected from contamination during events on an open deck, or the production of potable water at anchor which increases the risk of introducing contaminants into a ship’s water systems.

Maritime public health compliance isn’t about ticking boxes: plans that exist only on paper do not mitigate risk. Compliance is not a bureaucratic barrier or a collection of informal recommendations to be considered at one’s discretion. A commitment to regulatory standards fosters a culture of public health characterized by accountability, integrity, and trust. Regrettably, the true value of compliance is often not fully appreciated until it is too late.

Five Ways to Make Compliance Cool

How public health compliance is communicated has a lasting impact. When done correctly, compliance becomes a competitive advantage. By adhering to industry health standards and guidelines, maritime owners and operators can minimize inherent risks, supporting ongoing strategies to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. And truthfully, what’s cooler than protecting the health and safety of all on board?

Actions that can help elevate the acceptance of public health compliance in your company include:

  1. Integrate compliance into your company’s culture. Compliance is best achieved when it’s part of an organization’s ethos. The responsibility for public health must not be exclusively confined to specific departments or individuals: all employees must be fully engaged and active participants. Furthermore, compliance must not be portrayed as a “necessary burden”. When team members recognize that compliance can actually help them, they will be more inclined to embrace it.
  2. Practice what you preach. It is imperative that senior management establish the standard and act as role models. The integrity of an organization is reinforced when its leaders consistently exhibit behavior that match their words. This sets a powerful precedent that demonstrates that company regulations are universal, encompassing even those at the highest level.
  3. Make compliance functional. Balancing what is feasible to implement with the available resources—while ensuring compliance with regulatory standards—will promote a greater acceptance of the rules. Control measures that are challenging to execute or are unlikely to be accepted, will not be successful in minimizing risk and will result in employee disengagement.
  4. Reward compliant performance. As humans we have a natural inclination to seek out seek reward and avoid punishment. Linking internal public health compliance evaluations to incentives like bonuses and career advancement can boost employee motivation. It is critical, however, that incentives are distributed equitably. Rewarding those who flout the rules will undermine the efforts of those committed to compliance.
  5. Make sure your company is ready for compliance. To ensure that your team members understand the importance of public health and are properly equipped to carry out their duties, sufficient resources and support will be required. The basics for this include having effective public health policies and procedures, the provision of training and coaching, and continuous improvement initiatives such as routine hygiene inspections and audits.

By integrating public health compliance into the equation, your company can boost employee engagement and decrease the likelihood of negative health outcomes. Just keep in mind—to quote compliance expert and author Michael Volkov—“Compliance is not a one-time event. It’s an ongoing process.”