Human Element & the Need for Onboard Safety Practices

By October 26, 2015 Uncategorized No Comments

^The Sinking of the Titanic in 1912 Triggered the Framing of SOLAS in 1914 Original Painting by Willy Stower Source Magazine Die Gartenlaube Retrieved From 

Commercial Pressures & the Human Element

‘The root cause of the Chernobyl accident, it is concluded, is to be found in the so-called human element’.

This is what the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA’s) says in a report on the post-accident review of the Chernobyl Accident of 1986, the world’s worst ever nuclear power plant disaster. Sadly, there is no international consensus on what constitutes human error.

Among other things, this report first used the term safety culture implying human errors. This was before any industry had recognized the role of human behavior (shaped by organizational practices) in industrial accidents. Today, the term is popular in all industries across the globe.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) says it is the safety-conscious behavior of seafarers that determines the safety of life at sea as well as the safety of the marine environment. And it has reasons to believe so.

According to the United States Coast Guard (USCG), a staggering 75-96% of maritime casualties result from human errors. But it was only in the 1990s that the notion of safety culture took root in the industrial world. Earlier, the focus was on technological (equipment) failure.

French Ship Mount Blanc Explodes in Canada in 1917, the Worst Accidental Explosion of All Time Source: Library & Archives Canada/PA-166585 Retrieved From

French Ship Mount Blanc Explodes in Canada in 1917, the Worst Accidental Explosion of All Time
Source: Library & Archives Canada/PA-166585
Retrieved From

We have to remember that, finally, it is humans that operate technology. The 1990s marked the beginning of the long march towards building and nurturing a workforce that understood the importance of and practiced safe work procedures.

Customer is the king in the market economy. And the king loses his hearing when someone says the word ‘no’ to him. We all know the great lengths to which professionals go to make their clients happy. Things are no different in the maritime industry.

Half of the crews aboard workboats and offshore supply vessels (OSVs) would cut down on safety measures rather than say ‘no’ to clients or even to senior management. And an astounding 78% believe commercial pressures can impact safe work practices.

So says the report The Impact of Crew Engagement and Organizational Culture on Maritime Safety in the Workboats and OSV Sectors. Crew engagement and organizational culture, the report concludes, do improve safety performance on workboats and OSVs, just like everywhere else.

Helm Operations, Canada published the report that sums up six months of research by Fathom Maritime Intelligence. Southampton Solent University, UK collected and analyzed the data.

The Need for Onboard Safety Practices

Early efforts at improving maritime safety focused on technical glitches because safety was seen primarily as a technical challenge. This stimulated vast improvements in vessel structure, navigation aids, and reliability of vessel systems.

Regardless of the limitations of this approach, it did improve maritime safety. Despite the runaway expansion in the size of the global fleet from 30,000 to 100,000 over the period from 1910 to 2010, ship losses have tanked from one in 100 to one in 670 in the same duration.

Still, the casualty rate in the maritime world is relatively high. The fatality rate for ship-farers in the U.K. is down from 358 per 100,000 in 1919 to 11 per 100,000 for 1996-2005. Yet, this is 12 times that of the general workforce, 8.5 times as much in manufacturing, and 2.5 times of that in construction.

Corresponding statistics for Hong Kong are 96 per 100,000 and those for Poland are 84. Any further improvement of safety in the maritime world will come only with better safety cultures that focus on humans.

Apart from the ethical dimension, there is the financial one. Maritime accidents are immensely expensive on account of the involved towage, repairs, shipment delays, reputation loss, investigations, medical costs, and possible regulatory penalties.

According to the U.S. Towing Industry Safety Statistics Report, a low-intensity incident inflicts damages up to $50,000. Those of medium severity cost between $50,000 and $250,000 while major incidents cost over $250,000.

And you can start multiplying these numbers if the involved vessel is a tanker, for cleaning up the spill and paying up the fines for environmental damages will cost a fortune.

Maritime System

In the maritime world, human element is taken to mean operations performed by all humans related to shipping activities viz. crew, shore-based management, shipyards, regulators, legislators, and other relevant parties.


A report by the USCG concludes that human errors cause:

  • 75-96% maritime casualties
  • 89-96% collisions
  • 75% allisionse. the collision of a moving ship with another stationary vessel
  • 79% towing vessel groundings
    Salvage Operation of the Costa Concordia that Sunk in January 2012 Image Courtesy Lwp Komminikacio Source Flickr: A Costa Concordia kiemelese Retrieved From

    Salvage Operation of the Costa Concordia that Sunk in January 2012
    Image Courtesy Lwp Komminikacio
    Source Flickr: A Costa Concordia kiemelese
    Retrieved From

  • 84-88% tanker accidents
  • 75% fires and explosions

The same report blames fatigue, poor technological understanding, and absence or deficiency of communication and coordination between the crew for human errors.

Maritime system includes:

  • People: crews, pilots, dock workers, vessel traffic service operators etc.
  • Organization: work safety standards, size and training levels of crew, hierarchical framework, and work schedules
  • Environment: lighting, temperature, noise, weather, vibration, current economic situation, and existing regulatory atmosphere
  • Technology: gadgets and equipment

More often than not, it is the mismatch between humans on one hand and organization, environment, or technology on the other that triggers the error. Some errors however do result from inherent human limitations.


Instituting fastidious changes is expensive, but life is priceless. With the fatality rate in the maritime industry still way above average and with any further improvements in safety possible only by addressing the human element, it is high time we took bold steps in this direction.

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