Human factors: time to re-focus

Anglo-Eastern’s Captain Pradeep Chawladiscusses the need to re-focus on human factors to prevent accidents. The approach is to investigate the eco-system in which the seafarer takes decisions rather than blaming the seafarer. He discusses how to encourage mutual respect for the seafarer and use positive re-enforcement and co-operation rather than punishments to encourage a better safety culture.

Port state control statistics show a clear improvement. While in 2008, the average deficiencies per inspection were around 3.4, in 2018 it is around 2.25 (Paris MOU).

Similarily, ITOPF statistics show that the number of spills has reduced from 78 in the 1970s to a mere 6 in the last 5 years.

Total losses as a percentage of the world fleet have reduced from 0.35% in 2001 to about 0.15%, according to the IUMI 2018 report.

Seafarer deaths are less than half compared to ten years ago according to IMO.

It would be fair to say that the maritime industry has improved significantly over the last two decades. ISM, STCW, SIRE, MARPOL and PSC regimes can all take credit for it; though it is the seafarers who should be applauded the most.

Yet, accidents continue to happen. Any life lost or injury is one too many. The goal must remain as zero injuries, zero damage to the environment and zero damage to cargo or property.

Most accidents today are not due to lack of knowledge, skill or experience. They are due to human factors or attitude to work.

However, the question to ask ourselves is ‘Why did the human being fail?’ The investigation must not stop at saying that ‘human factors’ was the cause.

If we want to reduce accidents further, we need to understand human behaviour and it’s complexities. We must analyse the system in which the seafarer is making decisions and find the reasons for the errors.

Human behaviour is not a fixed constant. People behave in accordance with organizational culture and personal beliefs. It is also well known that one of the characteristics of human behaviour is that when work needs to get done, the easiest path to get it completed in time will be chosen. It must also be remembered that human beings while working are only taking actions. It is only in hindsight that we can recognize them as ‘mistakes’ or ‘errors’. People want to do a good job, in general.

The reasons to make mistakes may be many – for example, overconfidence, inadequate guidance, time pressure, distractions, interruptions, multiple tasks, peer pressure, a new situation or even being upset due to a fight with a partner.

The UK MCA book ‘Human Element’ has a very relevant list of 10 reasons for unsafe behaviour.

  1. It looks fine or it’s not really important – so we can skip this step
  2. It’s normally OK or it’s much quicker this way
  3. It’s good enough for now
  4. It was checked earlier/ will be checked by someone else later.
  5. There’s no time or no one to do it know.
  6. I can’t remember how to do it and have no time to look it up but this looks like the right way
  7. We must get this done in time.
  8. It looks like something we know, so it probably is
  9. If you don’t say anything, I won’t either
  10. I’m not an expert, so I’ll let you decide.

It is my strong belief that regulations, policies and industry guidance drive the behaviour of seafarers and companies.

In the last 20 years, the regulations have increased tenfold. We have added many new logbooks for garbage, oil, biofouling, ballast, security etc… We’ve also added new tasks/reporting for MRV, cybersecurity and GDPR. It is not going to stop as regulations are rolled out for Green House Gases etc.

We have done all this while reducing the number of seafarers on board.

It is time to recognize that the seafarer in overwhelmed and drowning in procedures and logbooks and hence mistakes are bound to happen in such an environment.

Here are some thoughts for discussion on how to re-focus on human factors in a different way, taking the ecosystem into consideration:

As an industry, we are very globalized and fragmented. Stakeholders need to collaborate rather than confront each other.

Re-enforce positive behaviour
It is a fact that what gets appreciated gets repeated. Would it not be motivating to the seafarers if PSC also gave some positive comments rather than only deficiencies? USCG used to do it, some 20 years ago but does not do so anymore, though at least, they have the ‘Qualship 21’ program that is appreciated by the seafarers.

Eliminate fear
In the present state of the industry, truthful and honest reporting sometimes leads to commercial losses or punishments. A ship may not be allowed to enter a port or may be subjected to such harsh investigations, that the seafarer or company begin to wonder whether ‘honesty is the best policy’?

Commercial pressure
Hold and tank cleaning between ports, especially on short sea trade vessels are well-known tasks that put pressure on the seafarers. Surely, responsible charterers can co-operate to be reasonable in their expectations.

Respect the seafarer
Seafarers are highly skilled professionals and deserve to be treated with respect. Port and regulatory authorities must have robust systems to ensure that seafarers are treated well and fairly, during their visits to your port. It will encourage them to be honest and motivated to do their job well.

Technological/ Regulatory solutions
The industry must look at technological solutions to reduce the workload on seafarers. For example, can we not regulate to have sensors to record the opening and closing of valves, record fluid transfers and vessel positions Can compactors and landing of garbage in every port not be made mandatory? We need to reduce the administrative burden on the seafarer.

Pilotage areas
With territorial AIS and VTS monitoring, we know the ‘hot spots’ of accidents. Can we not collaborate by passing laws to have compulsory pilotage in such areas?

Digitaliation will surely reduce the workload of the seafarers. However it is a ‘chicken and egg’ situation. It is moving slowly because, as an industry we have not yet even defined the requirements for sensors. Goal must be simplifying the collection of data and making intelligence out of it. Digitalization is not just converting paper forms to electronic forms. It should eliminate the need for forms.

At the end of the day, owners, managers, charterers and the regulatory regime have the same goal of safe carriage of cargo with no harm to people, environment, ship or property.

We need to manage our ‘human-beings’ well and they will manage safety well!

We need to listen to our seafarers and solve their problems through sensible, practical and sustainable regulations/policies/guidance that should be enforced in an encouraging, collaborative industry and not solely through punishments, criminalization and blame culture.


  1. A good article. The only thing I would say is that I don’t think the industry has ever really focussed on what ails the seafarer in any sustained and meaningful way that centres them, so it is more ‘a time to focus,’ than a ‘re-focus.’ For so long in so many different ways, different persons have been calling for the same thing. Rather than improvement we have seen a deterioration in how seafarers are treated. Added to suggestions for respect, eliminate fear and give due attention to criminalisation, we can add now attention to increased mental health issues that must be addressed, mis-trust on board, poor relationship between shore-side and ship personnel and responsibilization of seafarers for both technical issues and their health and safety, which all need attention. Seafarers seem to find a way, so while accident rates might be declining, there seems to be a decline in seafarers’ health and safety. This is being given attention, but it appears not in the right places and with the right amount of care and it remains that it is the relatively few who keep drawing attention to the state of seafarers in these areas.

  2. Well said Caroline.

    Sadly there is much talk and very little action by the industry to safeguard it most valuable and priceless asset – the human element.

    Seafarers have been treated just like a commodity albeit a cheap one for too long.

    The industry should step up now before it’s too late notwithstanding all the glorious speculation of the imminent rise of MASS and the imminent doom of seafarers.

  3. A very good article.The only thing i would like to say is that most part of the pressure regarding safety,PSC inspection,extermal audit,class survey is pushed just on the crew and key factors forget that crew have also to do maimtenance,important repairs during port stay,bunkering,cargo operation,manouvering,prepare the ship for inspections mentioned before.Sometimes PSC officers usually in Asia they come especially to find something and it doesnt matter if is just something minor or something important for both human and ship safety.They come especially to find and write some deficiencies and this kind of aproaching is frustrated and unfair for the crew because after all the pressure and blame are pushed just on the crew.First of all the most part of the crew are intersted to improve safety culture on board,to avoid accidents for both cause are profesional seamans and they have to comeback heathy to their families.
    As is mentioned in article is better to replace blame policy with practical and sustainable regulations and listen their needs and problems and make them to feel respected for their job.
    And please dont forget just who doesnt work no make mistake durind his/her profesion.

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