Safety lessons from the sea – for the workplace

October 10, 2013 Peter Salusbury

While it’s not always as exciting as sailing the high seas, the workplace can learn some lessons in safety from the ways of the sailor.

I was most fortunate to have the opportunity to race and sail relatively small racing yachts across oceans when I was only a teenager —two trips across the Atlantic Ocean and three trips across the Pacific Ocean.  My first significant ocean crossing came when I was 20 years old. I skippered and navigated a 41-foot racing yacht across the Atlantic Ocean in 17 days.

Successfully sailing across an ocean, with all the potential weather conditions and hazards requires particular attention to boat and crew preparation, with an important focus on safety at sea.

Safety at sea is particularly important because, as you can imagine, if a yacht gets into trouble of any kind, the crew need to fend for themselves and deal with the emergency at hand.  If a fire breaks out 1,000 miles offshore, you can’t run for the exits and dial 911 for fire rescue. Unless the fire is completely out of control, you remain on board, fight the fire, and deal with the damage afterwards so you can carry on.   Experienced sailing crews are trained to be prepared for a wide range of hazards including how to survive a severe storm, how to recover a man overboard, how to triage and administer first aid, and how to deploy and get into a life raft.  In my experience, the following 3Ps are the foundation for a strong safety culture offshore – and on:

Preparation: Checking (and double-checking) that all safety equipment is on board, is in good working order, and meets the strict requirements of the offshore safety regulations. The importance of routinely confirming expiry dates on fire extinguishers, safety flares, inflatable life rafts, etc., is drilled into every experienced sailing skipper.  It’s no different in a work environment. You must be acutely aware of the hazards and risks of any situation, making sure safety equipment is available and your “crew” are trained in their use (or wearing the proper equipment, as appropriate).


Practice: It’s not enough to just have the right equipment on board. Crews must practice how to fight a fire, use an emergency flare, deploy a life raft, or most importantly, recover a crew member who has fallen overboard during a storm. Experienced crews practice man-overboard drills frequently in different sea conditions so everyone knows their role instinctively if disaster strikes. In the workplace too, practice makes perfect, as the saying goes. Whether it’s the regular fire evacuation drills we carry out in our offices, having staff participate in first aid training programs, or making sure site crews review work for the day during tailgate meetings, this practice helps everyone anticipate and prepare for the hazards they may face.

Personal Responsibility: With sound boat preparation and crew practice, it then falls to each of us on the boat to take personal responsibility for our own safety. I once raced through a severe storm offshore with one of the world’s most accomplished offshore racing sailors and I learned two important lessons from him – anticipation and responsibility. He also emphasized the importance of taking care of yourself first. There’s an old saying in offshore sailing – “one hand for yourself, one hand for the boat.”

The workplace basically follows the same philosophy. It’s about training people to balance focusing on the task at hand with taking care of themselves first and foremost. Simple office ergonomics is a perfect example – injuries occur when people don’t familiarize themselves with proper desk set up or, most importantly, don’t listen to their bodies when aches and pains begin at their desks. Similarly, we see injuries from trying to lift something too heavy, slips and trips on uneven terrain, or rushing while carrying out tasks. These kinds of incidents are triggered from a behavior that puts the task first, before recognizing the importance of individual personal safety.

So rather than adopt, maybe we need to adapt the simple saying from the ocean for all of us landlubbers – “one hand for yourself first, one hand for the task second.” 

About the Author

Peter Salusbury

Peter Salusbury is our Senior Vice President of People & Practice. Peter developed Stantec’s ISO Certified Integrated Management System.

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