Safety at sea: human factors aboard ship

Changes in shipping practices that mean human factors input is becoming increasingly important for improving safety and efficiency on board ships, but as Catherine Harvey and colleagues discuss, working with an industry so steeped in tradition can be a challenge.

Ships transport 23 million tonnes of cargo and 55,000 cruise passengers every day. Transport must continuously evolve to meet the needs of a growing world population and the maritime industry attempts to meet this demand with trends towards larger ships, design standardisation, specialisation of vessel types and increasing automation.

Safety management is still a major challenge with recent worrying reports of an increase in the frequency of shipping accidents. In 2012, the Department for Transport reported that there were over 24,000 UK nationals working as seafarers and 64% of these were involved in ship or engine handling. Despite the obvious importance of the human element in shipping, human factors is reportedly lacking in all aspects of the maritime domain, from the design of vessels, occupational factors and the training and supply of suitable crew members, through to organisational management. An insufficiency of human factors research is an issue in many areas however, there seems to be a sense throughout the literature that the problem is particularly severe in the maritime sector, likely due to a combination of reasons including:
- A lack of movement away from traditional practices particularly compared to other transport domains, which can, for example, lead to low adoption of technology.
- A lack of awareness for many people about the maritime industry in general, as shipping does not appear to be a part of our everyday lives, compared to road, rail and air.
- Acute and increasing competition in the industry, resulting in time and cost pressures, with human factors considered by many to be an unnecessary expense.
- A lack of crew involvement in vessel and task design, resulting in poorly adapted equipment.
- The multinational nature of shipping, leading to disparity between operating procedures, safety management and skill levels of crew and a lack of coherent research on these topics.

Physical, psychological, medical, social, workplace and environmental factors have all been listed as potential contributors to maritime accidents. All influence the performance of the human element of the system, potentially leading to unsafe actions by crew members. Ships operate with large inertia often combined with close proximity to other vessels. Furthermore, the cues for decision making are not always directly observable, for example the sea-ship interaction and the effects of currents and meteorological conditions are often ‘felt’ rather than measured. These factors create challenges for seafarers and increase the risks of working on ships.

HCI on the ship’s bridge

There has been a huge influx of new technologies into the ship’s bridge in recent years and this has altered the tasks performed by the crew. Technologies include Very High Frequency (VHF) radio for communications with port authorities and other vessels, autopilot navigation, Global Positioning System (GPS), Advanced Radar Plotting Aids (ARPA) for displaying the position of local marine traffic, and the Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS).

A consequence of this influx of technology is increasingly complex interfaces with large variations amongst vessels and a lack of integration between technologies. Multiple systems must often be used simultaneously, increasing the task demands on operators. Attempts to manage this increasing quantity and diversity of information results in more tasks being automated, although the pace of introduction of automation has been slower than in other domains like aviation, and consequently there has been less research into the effects of automation in the maritime sector. There is a danger that this focus on technological solutions will be at the expense of research into training of personnel and understanding of both physical and cognitive aspects of performance.

Human error

A very large proportion of shipping accidents have been attributed to human error, although the definition and interpretation of error seems to vary quite widely within the literature. The Torrey Canyon accident, in which an oil tanker was wrecked off the coast of Cornwall, was originally attributed to a number of human errors. However, when examined in more detail these errors can be traced both to management decisions that put pressure on the captain, and to equipment design issues that led to a lack of feedback about the activation of the autopilot mode. These issues occurred at higher levels in the system and were not the fault of a single individual but the need to  ascribe blame at an individual level still appears to be strong.

Decision making, situation awareness and teamwork

Personnel on the ship’s bridge must analyse information from multiple sources which are constantly changing during the voyage. In the operational decision making process, humans have to deal with time stress, multiple simultaneous task requirements and uncertainty. However, on board ships ‘soft’ or ‘non-technical’ skills have received less attention compared with research on technology-related performance. New technologies on the ship’s bridge alter the task allocation between human and machine. It is therefore essential for the seafarers themselves to understand which elements of the task are being performed by the technology so that their expectations of their own performance requirements are accurate.

The modern seafarer is also likely to be part of a multinational crew and this factor influences their decision making, situational awareness, communications, and ultimately, performance. The lack of research into seafarers’ cognitive skills may, in part, be due to the difficulty in measuring such attributes due to the dynamic nature of maritime vessel control and navigation. Furthermore, as the seafarer will always be interacting with other agents, decision making will be a collaborative process, a fact that makes the analysis of these cognitive skills even more problematic.

Systems, accident analysis and safety culture

The maritime industry is an example of a large scale socio-technical system and there are many implications of the coordination of multiple distributed subsystems such as individual ships, shoreline operators and Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) operators, on the performance of the ship as a collaborative system. The scale of maritime operations also means that performance effects are felt at system level, with potentially wide-reaching global impact.

Changes to practice and policy tend to be triggered by high profile, large scale accidents but there is no standardised accident reporting system in this domain. Seafarers may be reluctant to report incidents if they feel personally at fault, are unaware of local reporting procedures, or believe that the incident could have negative consequences for the work team or company as a whole. This reluctance leads to significant underreporting of accidents, which makes it very difficult to assess safety in this industry. Adequate safety management is threatened by poor coordination between regulatory and enforcement bodies, bureaucratic processes putting pressures on crew and cuts to safety budgets in order to increase the short-term profits of ship owners operating in increasingly competitive markets.

Adherence to and understanding of safety management systems is also highly influenced by the individual cultures of seafarers as well as the safety culture of the vessel or vessel operator. There is increasing attention in safety and systems literature on the importance of culture and its influence on the acceptance of and buy in to safety management policies by personnel but only a few studies on this topic have been conducted so far.

Job design, occupational health and training

The maritime domain is high-risk and seafarers have to endure an incredibly harsh working environment, often for long periods of time without respite. Personnel can be deployed at sea for periods of more than six months with long shifts and few rest days. Short voyages can also place high mental strain on crew members, as these will often consist of a number of arrivals and departures and take place amongst high traffic densities, resulting in many adjustments to a rapidly changing scenario. Crews are also reducing in size as competition in the industry drives ship owners towards increased efficiencies. This competitive atmosphere means that individual seafarers will have less support from other crew members whilst facing an increase in the demands of the job as tasks are shared among fewer personnel.

Fatigue is also a major issue, with many contributory factors including disrupted watch patterns, long working hours, sleep problems of crew members, stress and work pressures, issues with on-board relationships and voyage cycle time. Scheduled rest times may not provide conditions for adequate sleep, as the noise and motion of the ship may be disturbing and seafarers may also need to perform personal tasks such as contacting relatives during this time.

Enhanced training has been suggested as one method for helping seafarers to better cope with the occupational demands of the industry. Training has improved dramatically over the last century, but the quality could be threatened by the increasing commercial pressures on operating companies. It is clear that human factors research in the maritime domain is lacking, particularly when compared with other transport sectors.

There has been much less attention paid to seafarers’ non-technical skills, including decision making, situation awareness and workload. There has been some focus on safety culture, particularly in relation to how this is perceived by seafarers and how perceptions differ according to the cultures and nationalities of crew members. Despite some evidence of a change in the
perception of human error, there is still wide disparity in the proportions of accidents attributed to human causes and in the definitions of what actually constitutes human error. Further work on decision making, situation awareness and workload is likely to improve this situation, as is an increased focus on training so that seafarers have a better understanding of the active and latent conditions that can lead to errors and accidents.

Technology solutions are still favoured over enhanced training and although there has been some discussion about the need for enhanced training of seafarers, there has been no specific focus on the design, implementation and evaluation of novel training schemes, an important area for future work. It is difficult to evaluate many human factors issues in large scale, safety-critical, and complex systems and this difficulty is compounded in the maritime domain by lengthy voyages and harsh conditions aboard vessels. Opportunities to learn about human behaviour and safety from real accidents are rare because critical incidents do not occur frequently and cannot be predicted or controlled. However, vast improvements in simulation methods mean that we can now study situations that would have been inaccessible in the past.

Maritime research can also learn from other domains like aviation, which has benefited from a large amount of attention to human factors issues over many years. Encouragingly, there appears to be a general acknowledgement by the industry of the importance of the ‘human element’ in shipping, with recent reports from the International Maritime Organisation and the UK P&I Club recognising the need for a greater balance between operating efficiencies, environmental concerns and the safety and welfare of seafarers and passengers. The requirement now is for the research community to respond to this need by investigating the wide range of human factors issues in this domain.

By Catherine Harvey, Research Fellow, Professor Neville Stanton, Chair of Human Factors in Transport, both in the Transportation Research Group, Faculty of Engineering and Environment, University of Southampton & Pengjun Zheng, Professor of Maritime Engineering at Ningbo University, China.

This article was first published in issue 517 of The Ergonomist, July 2013.

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