Safe navigation and efficient merchant vessel management depend on many factors that should function as a whole. This can only be achieved if we ensure that ships are properly designed, constructed and operated, recognizing the value of human factor on all stages.

The human factor is applied throughout the chain of activities undertaken by the crew on board, land-based staff of the managing company, the shipyard where the ship is built, the legislators and others. All of the above must work together harmoniously, so that the best result can be achieved.

The Hellenic Marine Environment Protection Association, known as HELMEPA, founded in 1982 in Piraeus by Greek seafarers and shipowners who signed the Declaration of Voluntary Commitment titled “To Save the Seas”, has since highlighted the need for continuous education regarding the human factor, placing it at the heart of the effort to prevent pollution and promote safety at sea. This initiative took place at a time when emphasis was given only to the construction and equipment of the ships as well as to policing and enforcement.

International regulations on the safety of maritime operations and human life at sea are issued by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). SOLAS (International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea) is the cornerstone of international legislation on maritime safety and in its current form was adopted by IMO in 1974. Since then, it has been subject to regular amendments and additions that constantly update and enrich, enhance and tighten the constructional, technological and operational safety standards for ships and the regulations for the protection of people on board.

IMO has also developed and adopted International Conventions and Codes for the prevention of collisions, training, certification and labor conditions of seafarers, search and rescue at sea, facilitation of marine traffic, load lines, transport of dangerous goods, etc.

Maritime accidents are usually the result of a combination of several factors that can range from purely technical causes and failures (e.g. mechanical failures) to more complex issues related to the environment or people. In almost all cases, the human factor contributes to a greater or lesser degree, entering into the full range of activities related to the management and operation of the ship.

The majority of accidents could have been avoided if the understanding, perception, actions and behaviors of the people involved in the incident were different and this has to do not only with seafarers but with people from all positions and hierarchy levels in the wider maritime transportation system, whose decisions and actions can have a serious impact on the operation of the vessel.

Recognizing this fact, IMO described in 1997 in Resolution A.850(20) its vision, principles and objectives in relation to the human element, while having already adopted in 1993 the International Safety Management Code (ISM Code), which in combination with its implementation guidelines, establishes a mandatory international standard for the safe management and operation of ships by means of the composition and implementation of a Safety Management System (SMS) for the shipping company.

The effective implementation of the above, with all the revisions and changes that have been made along the way, has since been a fundamental requirement and demand in the shipping industry, aiming to minimize accidents and their impact on human life and the environment, as well as financial loss.

Modern approaches in safety, accident investigation and Safety Management Systems do not target individuals and their mistakes, shortcomings or weaknesses but focus primarily on identifying and addressing those systemic weaknesses and shortcomings that give room to human error in a way that can lead to painful consequences.

At an individual level, a constant goal remains the high-quality education and training, along with a balanced development of the technical as well as the equally essential non-technical skills (the so-called soft skills) and a move away from the traditional culture of “unthinking” compliance with external rules towards a culture of “thinking” self-regulation and compliance. It is about fostering and adopting a genuine safety culture, according to which every person, from the top to the bottom of the hierarchy, is “self-regulated”, feeling responsible for the actions she/he takes, aiming to protect and improve both her/his own and her/his colleague’s safety. This is essentially the “commitment from the top” that HELMEPA’s Founding Declaration of 1982 refers to as the “voluntary commitment of all, from shipowner to the last seafarer“.

Safety instructions to prevent accidents on board

This section summarizes some basic tips to avoid accidents on board, which mainly refer to the following two sources:

a) The British Coast Guard MGN 520 (M) document (Maritime and Coastguard Agency – MCA) titled “The Deadly Dozen – 12 Significant People Factors in Maritime Safety“, which, by utilizing knowledge and experience from the aviation field, highlights, describes and explains the main factors related to human condition or behavior, which can be the cause of errors and maritime accidents. The effective management of these factors in accordance with the instructions and advice provided in the document can make a decisive contribution to the prevention of serious accidents and to a drastic improvement of maritime safety.

b) The document Golden Safety Rules to ensure zero accidents and healthy work, a recent result of the Together in Safety initiative, launched in 2018 by leading shipping bodies and organizations, which includes some basic rules and practices concerning hazardous work or situations at sea. Compliance with these rules has shown to lead to a dramatic reduction in deaths and injuries from accidents at work in shipping and related industries.

Α) Human behavior

Β) Management of hazardous operations / situations on board