Workplace fiddles in the shipping industry

Publication Date14 Apr 2020
AuthorHelen Devereux,Emma Wadsworth,Syamantak Bhattacharya
subjectMatterHR & organizational behaviour,Industrial/labour relations,Employment law
Workplace fiddles in the
shipping industry
Helen Devereux, Emma Wadsworth and Syamantak Bhattacharya
Solent University, Southampton, UK
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to examine the ways in which workers employ rule breaking, rule
bending and deviations from management defined norms in the workplace and the impact this has on their
occupational health and safety (OHS) experiences.
Design/methodology/approachThe paper uses qualitative semi-structured interviews conducted with 37
seafarers working on board four vessels engaged in international trade. The data were recorded, transcribed
and thematically analysed using NVivo software.
Findings The findings indicate that seafarers utilised workplace fiddles which included rule breaking, rule
bending and deviating from management defined norms in order to engender a workable system in which
they could remain safe but also profitable to those who controlled their labour. Moreover, the findings suggest
that shore-side management deflected the responsibility for rule violations by deferring many of the decisions
regarding features of life on board such as the scheduling of work hours to the senior officers on board.
Originality/value The paper sheds light on where, in practice, responsibility for OHS lies in the
international shipping industry, an industry in which workers experience relatively high rates of work-related
fatalities, injuries and mental health conditions.
Keywords Employee behaviour, Occupational health and safety, Group behaviour, Seafarer
Paper type Research paper
Whilst the ways in which work is organised have changed considerably since the early 1900s,
much of what is considered today as the norm stems from Taylorism, and consequently, work
methods are both standardised and formalised.
Despite such standardised ways of working, research indicates that workers utilise their
tacit knowledge and accumulated knowledge to circumvent workplace procedures in order to
maintain control over the environment in which they work. In his ethnographic study of deep-
level mining, Phakathi (2017) revealed numerous ways in which workers manipulated
formalised work systems, such as frontline miners utilising creative informal practices to
resolve bottlenecks in the extraction of mineral-bearing rock.
Workplace behaviour in which workers manipulate formalised work systems are referred
to in the literature as workplace fiddles. Whist several definitions of workplace fiddles exist,
the term is used here to denote behaviour that involves workers utilising their knowledge and
experience to break or bend workplace rules (Webb and Palmer, 1998). This behaviour may
include what Sewell and Wilkinson (1992) term divergences from management
defined norms.
In their dimensions of workplace fiddles model Webb and Palmer (1998) argue that
workplace fiddles can be viewed along two dimensions. First, they can be categorised
according to whether they are pursued by an individual or a group of workers acting
collectively. Collective action denotes that the beneficiary of the fiddle is dependent upon the
active complicity of another worker(Webb and Palmer, 1998, p. 616). Second, they can be
fiddles in the
The authors are grateful to the four ships that hosted the research and the seafarers who shared their
experiences with us. The authors also wish to thank Professor David Walters for his guidance.
Funding: This research was supported by a Seafarers International Research Centre-Nippon
Foundation Fellowship.
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
Received 24 July 2019
Revised 9 March 2020
17 March 2020
Accepted 17 March 2020
Employee Relations: The
International Journal
Vol. 42 No. 4, 2020
pp. 933-948
© Emerald Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/ER-07-2019-0294
categorised according to either evading surveillance or making time. Evading surveillance is
considered to be action which is essentially defensive, with the aim being to avoid detection
by management. Making time, on the other hand, is defined as action which enables workers
to gain some measure of control over their immediate work environment.
Several studies suggest that workplace fiddles can in some circumstances have
positive implications for both employers and employees. Richards (2008) calls such
behaviour functional misbehaviour which they define as behaviour that does not comply
with official instructions but leads to positiveoutcomesfortheemployerorganisation.
Similarly, in his study of the British Army, Kirke (2010) states that some behaviour
which bends or breaks rules can make the working lives of those concerned easier without
compromising the reputation or effectiveness of the employer. Examples include
hiding surplus equipment during inspections so as not to have the spare equipment
which was anticipated to prove useful at a later date removed from the troop and
exaggerating the quantity of equipment destroyed in an incident so as to gain extra items
(Kirke, 2010).
Deery et al. (2010) also suggested that work groups are sometimes able to create norms
that shield workers from the adverse effects of stressful job demands. In their study of call
centre workers, emotional exhaustion and work intensification were mitigated through a
shared cultured of absenteeism whereby a permissive attitude of absence taking was
Conversely, there is a body of research which indicates that work methods which deviate
from formal safety rules and procedures can have serious repercussions for occupational
health and safety (OHS). Hopkins (1984) found that both management and miners tolerated
concentrations of methane gas which were substantially higher than formally permitted and
this informal tolerance was cited as a factor in the deaths of 14 miners in 1979 when the Appin
Colliery experienced an explosion of methane gas. Similarly, Nichols (1997) discovered that
one of the key causes of occupational injuries in the manufacturing and mining companies
which he studied was the deviation from formal safety rules. When production blockages
such as breakdowns in machinery occurred, workers bypassed formal safety rules in order
to restore production. Thus, the workers broke safety rules in order to cope with management
pressure to keep levels production up (Nichols, 1997).
Taking these findings as its basis, and by utilising Webb and Palmers (1998) dimensions
of worker fiddles categorisations, this study explores workplace fiddles in the international
shipping industry an industry in which OHS is a particular concern. Whilst it is difficult to
obtain accurate figures, those who work at sea have higher rates of fatalities (Roberts et al.,
2014) and occupational injuries (Hansen et al., 2002), as well as relatively high rates of
depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation (Lefkowitz et al., 2019) than many workers in shore-
based occupations. These issues make the international shipping industry a particularly
interesting industry in which to study workersuse of workplace fiddles and the impact this
had on their OHS experiences.
Structure of the international shipping industry
There are several factors related to the structure of the international shipping industry which
are likely to influence the use of workplace fiddles by those who work at sea. In recent decades
this structure has changed considerably and one feature of this has been the rise in ship
ownersuse of third-party ship managers. In 2018, third-party ship managers were estimated
to have nearly 13% of the global shipping fleet under their management, despite the first
instance of third-party ship management occurring only 43 years earlier (Lloyds List, 2018).
These managers offer a range of services including technical management, crewing
management and even full commercial management.

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