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Human Element
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The Human Element 


The Human Element in maritime operations-


Some blame the 'human element' for all maritime incidents!


Virtualy ALL accidents or incidents can be blamed on humans in one way or another either by design or operation.


Most collision incidents are good examples of ignorance in operation.

  • Take the example of 3 collisions with the sunken carrier 'TRICOLOR' on the mouth of the River Schelde.
  • The cruiseship 'Van Gogh' has collided with the laden double-hull tanker 'Spetses' in the Bay of Gibraltar.
  • Navigation in ice in the Gulf of Finland following the path of an ice breaker



Maritime Professionals-


Sadly 'maritime professionals' are a dying breed, the bottom line demanded by some ship owners ensuring we get quantity, but there is little quality. The industry is rapidly becoming a third world industry with third world standards, not only in the operation of the ships but also the classification of ships.


This is still a dangerous job the ignorance of the many is still being kept in check by the professionals. In the future this will change, as the number of professionals declines below the border line. When that happens the maritime casualty rate will soar and no amount of investigations or boards of inquiry will reduce them.


Seamanship navigation and engineering are all dying arts, as ships become more complex, seamen increasingly are being regarded as 'low-skill operators'


For most the motivation at sea now is money and leave time, the short turn-round times and pressure of work ensures that shore leave is very brief and infrequent. The ethnic and cultural diversity limit social life on board of most ships.


To add to the fact should you error as 'humans' do, you may become an international criminal. If you do your utmost to seek refuge and have it denied, in spite of international law for 'port of refuge' you are still condemned when your ship goes to the bottom and held without trial.



Below a few errors in design or operation....?




                                                       Blocked Pipes                                    Tank Cleaning



                                   Triplet                                             Gangway                               Failed Twist-Lock





The Human Element

Human error is frequently recorded as the reason for some act or omission that leads to an accident. As human endeavour is involved in all stages of the design, building and operating of a ship we might ascribe ‘human error’ to all such accidents, save those labelled ‘acts of God’ for want of any other likely source of blame. The human element concerned is chiefly related to those who serve on board ships. The often quoted figure of 80% of maritime accidents being caused by the human element relates mainly to the items of omission or commission by seafarers and therefore measures aimed at improving the performance of seafarers, should have the most direct effect on safety performance. The STCW95 Convention and the ISM Code are important international instruments aiming to improve the performance of the 'human element', in the operation and management of ships and to impliment a ‘safety culture’ and  ‘environmental conscience’ in those who operate ships.


Stress and Fatigue

Currently, the word ‘stress’ is often used to explain a multitude of human shortcomings. Stress arises when demands, or the workload exceed the physical and mental resources of the person. There are marked variations in what is stressful and how an individual responds to stress. For the seafarer, he (or she) can go from one ship to another and change trades but the basic environment does not change. The circumstances of being at sea itself brings about stress due to the ‘abnormal’ lifestyle.


The attitudes of seafarers to 'a safe ship' operation are determined by what happens on board and in the shipping company and partially by values that predominate in the industry and its associated administrations. The often ‘back and forth’ world of seafaring brings one major and growing problem: fatigue.  Fatigue has been recognised as a contributing factor in many transportation and industrial accidents; however, that connection is often difficult to realise because the direct links between the unsafe acts and decisions which led to the accidents and the fatigue state of the people involved are difficult to identify. Unlike alcohol and drugs, which can be measured by, for example, blood or urine tests, there is no unequivocal physical or chemical test that can tell us that a person is impaired to a certain extent by fatigue.



Communication is an essential part of human interaction. The benefits of effective communication are many and obvious as they enhance all aspects of our personal and professional lives. Ineffective or misunderstood communications in our personal lives may give rise to problems or embarrassment but in our professional lives the results of misunderstandings may have much more serious results. In the world of international shipping, with seafarers from many countries sailing on ships trading to all parts of the world, effective communication between those on board and between ship and shore is extremely important.


IMO analyses reports of casualties and accidents to see if there are any lessons to be learned for the future. Many accidents are found to be due mainly to operational issues of proper procedure, maintenance and design, rather than to proper implementation of regulations but effectiveness of bridge resource management and particularly ineffective relationships between master, crew and pilots are recurrent themes. Communication difficulties often occur in these areas, due, in part to cultural differences but also due to language ‘barriers’.  


Safety Management

If the activities of those who work in the shipping company ashore are not guided by safety principles they are unlikely to thrive on board.  Responsibility for establishing the operational culture on board lies with the company and is explicit in STCW and the ISM Code. The difficulty for the seafarer, particularly the master at times, is maintaining the safety, the first approach in the face of pressures outside of the ship and shipping company. Pressures from port authorities, pilots, loadingmasters, agents, vetting inspectors and others with an interest in the ship and its cargo but not necessarily with such a direct interest in the safety of the crew.  Clear and unequivocal guidance and support from the shipping company as required by both STCW and the ISM Code are vital to maintain the safety culture on board in the face of these pressures.


The essence of safety management is taking the safe approach rather than the quickest, easiest or cheapest. When faced with a task to be completed or an objective to be met the seafarer must make decisions on the information available using sound principles and procedures to guide him, or her. Once developed and implimented into everyday operations, safety management has to be maintained. The STCW requirements and responsibilities of shipping companies, coupled with the requirements in the ISM Code, should ensure that the working environment on board is a safe one. The ISM Code objectives of continuous improvement in safety management skills should establish the climate for an on-going commitment to safety. In this climate the well-trained and professional seafarer can properly adopt the safety culture which is so necessary to make the shipboard and shipping company operations successful.



In the shipping industry today, there is an emerging ‘zero tolerance’ for accidents. Perhaps surprisingly, the increased public opposition (in OECD countries at least) to maritime accidents is not due to the loss of human life, but damage to the marine environment. Witness the significant political fall-out in France, Spain and the EU following both the ERIKA and the PRESTIGE incidents. Whether we like it or not, we have to tackle seriously the real causes of accidents. The marine insurance industry, the legal profession and accident investigators can help accelerate the process by broadening their focus beyond financial loss and seeking to blame, to take human factors into account and to ask not only ‘what went wrong’ but also ‘why it went wrong’. This will not only be good for their conscience, but will also assist in real improvements to safety within the industry.


Though automation is increasingly able to control the machine in the man-machine system, it is the human being that is responsible for recognising, interpreting, compensating and correcting the consequences of deficiencies, failures and malfunctions in the machine and, ironically, also in other human beings.


It is therefore the human being and the influences on performance on which we have to focus our attention. Control of the 'human element' is some way off, but at least we are now beginning to appreciate the importance of the 'human element' and taking appropriate steps to improve their performance.





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