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
- We take care at all times to have a perception and correct understanding of the situation we are in (situational awareness), in other words to understand what is really happening and evaluate how this can affect our voyage at the moment and in the near future!
Incomplete or incorrect understanding of the circumstances has often led to accidents and is commonly due to lack of correct information, situations changing too quickly to be understood, lack of experience, distraction, fatigue and complacency.
- Plan carefully and know what and how you do something before doing it, making sure procedures and checklists are up to date and suitable for current conditions.
- Be vigilant, check for potential problems and ALERT IN TIME the appropriate member of the team if you notice something that has escaped the attention of others.
- Advise and help your team members and do not hesitate to ask for advice, information and help, making sure you communicate with them effectively.
- Assume that everything is going well or the way someone else will act
- Ignore a problem or skip something you do not understand, carrying on regardless without checking further.
- Put someone in a position/situation that they cannot cope with.
It is essential that we do not hesitate to speak out or express our concerns to the team, even to our superiors, about an unnoticed problem, actions or behaviors that we consider to put safety at risk. Objections or remarks should be communicated in an assertive and constructive manner and be accompanied, whenever possible, by counter-suggestions or possible solutions.
Companies and Masters should create a cooperation atmosphere, where people are encouraged to speak out and intervene when they believe it is necessary and are at the same time receptive to remarks and warnings made by others!
- During our communication we ensure that the messages and information exchanged are fully, clearly and correctly understood and that all people involved share the same understanding!
Problematic communication is often among the factors contributing to marine accidents and can be caused by many factors, such as: a) different mother tongues or idioms, b) different language skill levels, c) cultural differences (e.g. different meaning of non-verbal communication elements such as gestures or other body movements, different sense of humor, etc.), d) stressful situations (e.g. people tend to speak faster, louder and less clearly or even return to their mother tongue in emergencies) etc.
- Try to use simple words and phrases and repeat the most important parts of a message.
- Pay attention to your pronunciation and ask for confirmation if in doubt that you have not been understood.
- Talk with your colleagues and try to understand the different cultures, taboos, etc. to prevent possible unintentional misunderstandings and insults.
- Assume a message is always properly understood – CHECK!
- Use slang or colloquialisms that you are not sure are understood by everyone.
- Assume something that is acceptable in your culture will automatically be acceptable in another.
It is beneficial for companies to evaluate the communication skills of their prospective crews and incorporate communication and culture issues into their familiarization programs for new staff as well as ensure, in collaboration with the Master, that they continually cultivate the skills of all crew members in the use of the commonly agreed working language on board.
- Complacency, i.e. the belief without a second thought (and control) that everything is okay because it looks okay, is an easy and at the same time very dangerous trap that we must all take care to avoid when performing our duties!
There are many possible reasons why everyone is more or less prone to complacency, such as: a) repetition of tasks, or otherwise work routine, b) insufficient monitoring / control of the conditions, c) inability to perceive a change or problem in time due to lack of experience or knowledge, d) poor teamwork (e.g. lack of information during the shift change, problematic communication, etc.), e) fatigue, etc.
- Make sure to be alert, have an understanding of the current situation and keep your eyes open for possible problems!
- Use checklists carefully and not mechanically.
- Share with your team all important information (e.g. at the beginning and end of a shift) and ask for help when you feel you need it or have insufficient understanding of a situation.
- Ignore the procedures, even if you have repeated them many times. There is a reason they exist!
- Assume and expect that everything is okay and under control just because it always has been in the past or it has been a long time since it went wrong!
- Formal procedures and practices (i.e. the ones recorded in the Safety Management System) have been developed to ensure that work is performed correctly, in accordance with regulations and safety. Deviation from these procedures for reasons of “convenience”, “brevity”, etc. is very likely to lead to a significant reduction in safety and quality standards and may turn out particularly dangerous!
Violations or short cuts in formal practices can occur for a number of reasons, such as: a) the procedures themselves are unclear or difficult and non-practical in their implementation, b) the required equipment is not available or operational, c) insufficient training and supervision, d) poor mentality and indifference to safety issues or lack of awareness of the risk involved in some choices, e) lack of time or human resources, etc.
- Follow the appropriate procedures and practices.
- Check the effectiveness of the procedures in a critical manner, report difficulties and problems that arise during their implementation and seek improvement.
- Cut down procedures or take risks for reasons of convenience or speed.
- Overlook problematic areas and difficulties in documented practices – REPORT THEM!
- Start or attempt something if you are not sufficiently trained and supervised, especially if you do not have the necessary experience.
- Accept / tolerate the violation of procedures by your colleagues.
It is beneficial for companies and Masters to involve crews in the development of working procedures and practices and review them regularly and effectively, drawing on the experience of the people who apply them and ensuring proper training and supervision of the latter.
It is IMPOSSIBLE to develop written procedures that cover all eventualities! Seafarers are very likely to face unprecedented and unpredictable situations at some point, therefore their adequate training and experience, effective teamwork and support from shore-based experts is of the utmost importance!
- Fatigue has clearly negative effects on performance and health and contributes significantly to many marine accidents. It must be prevented and, if it does appear in the end, carefully treated, together with excessive feelings of “pressure” and resulting stress.
How much tired we feel is related to many factors, such as the natural biological rhythms (it is normal to need sleep at night and early in the afternoon), the duration and quality of sleep (the most important resting factor!), the continuous period we are awake, the length of time we spend working, the difficulty (physical and mental) of the work as well as whether we really rest during the periods in between etc.
Excessive stress and anxiety also contribute to the feeling of fatigue, often having similar causes (e.g. excessive workload and insufficient human resources) as well as consequences (poor performance due to reduced physical and mental abilities and health problems).
- Be aware of the causes, symptoms and effects/risks of fatigue for your health, performance and safety.
- Look out for symptoms of fatigue, both in yourself and in others. Fatigue can take you by surprise, and when you are tired it is often harder to recognize its effect!
- Speak up when you feel down or too tired.
- Ensure that you have the necessary human resources to properly implement a task before starting it.
- Ask for help when needed!
- Accept fatigue as a way of life, it is extremely dangerous!
- Try to cope with excessive workload by taking dangerous short cuts in the procedures in order to “catch up”, or by keep up working no matter what, ignoring your limits and stamina.
Companies must ensure the effective allocation of resources to the various tasks, develop and implement effective policies and plans for the prevention and management of fatigue at sea, encourage and respond promptly to fatigue reports from crews and enable the Master to suspend operations when this is absolutely necessary for the rest and recovery of the crew.
- Distraction from what we do is something that can easily and commonly happen to anyone, but it can have fatal consequences if it happens while performing a particularly risky task on board.
- Stay focused on the main work you are doing and avoid multi-tasking with many minor and less essential things, asking for help or leaving their arrangement for later, unless it is urgent.
- Go back two steps in the process before starting again if you realize that you have lost situational awareness at some point in a task.
- Have your eyes open and alert your colleagues if you notice them being distracted.
- Declare “red zones” in difficult or very demanding situations (e.g. in times of difficult navigation, whilst under pilotage etc.) in which only the necessary and essential communications are allowed.
- Allow unnecessary interruptions when performing your duties.
- Distract someone while performing a critically safety task!
- Be afraid to point out any distractions or let minor issues distract you from your main task.
Companies must implement practices to minimize outside distractions to ship crews, especially those coming from the companies themselves! (e.g. always respect and abide by the “red zones”)
- We do not undertake our duties unless our physical and mental condition is suitable to perform them properly and safely, we must be fit for duty!
Our physical and mental condition can deteriorate in many cases, such as illness, injury, fatigue, poor or disturbed psychology due to stress, anxiety, personal problems, etc. as well as the use of alcohol, drugs or other substances. The results vary (inability to concentrate and distracted attention, confusion, lack of coordination, drowsiness, inability to communicate) and put in danger not only yours but also the overall safety of the team!
- Seek medical help if you are injured or feeling unwell!
- Report your bad condition / illness / weakness in time before you start your work.
- Seek help and support if you have personal problems affecting your fitness for duty.
- Help your colleagues who are experiencing problems.
- Consume alcohol before or during work periods.
- Try to hide your potential inability to work.
- Consume illegal drugs.
- Allow crew members who do not feel well or are under the influence of alcohol or other substances to work!
Companies need to implement practices and programs that promote the well-being of their employees in general and their crews in particular.
Β) Management of hazardous operations / situations on board
- We only enter an enclosed space if it has been adequately ventilated and the atmosphere is confirmed to be safe!
According to 2019 data, in the last 20 years almost 150 deaths, of which 28 in the last 16 months alone, are related to enclosed space entry.
- Obtain the required permit and comply with the prescribed procedures, prior to any work.
- Verify that the atmosphere has been checked and made safe, ask for details regarding the test that was performed (when, by whom and in what way) and confirm if and when a re-check is needed.
- Confirm that energy sources, machinery and chemicals (liquids and gases) have been isolated and locked-out.
- Verify that the atmosphere of the space will not be affected by any adjacent activities.
- Agree with your colleagues on an appropriate rescue plan before entering.
- Work in an enclosed space if you can complete the same task in a safer way.
- Enter an enclosed space if you do not fully understand the hazards present and you are not sufficiently sure that it is safe.
- Enter an enclosed space alone.
- Deviate from the agreed safety and emergency procedures.
- We take all necessary precautions for “invisible hazards” (e.g. electricity, pressure) in our workplace, as well as to prevent a possible fall when working at a height, above water or during boarding/disembarking/transferring between vessels.
- Check if you need a permit and comply with the procedures, before starting any work.
- Plan your work in advance and agree on safety measures with your colleagues.
- Identify all energy sources (such as electrical, mechanical, gravitational and kinetic) in the space you are going to work.
- Treat all energy sources with care until you are sure that they are properly isolated, locked-out or tagged.
- Maintain situational awareness of other work being conducted around you.
- Maintain three points of contact when climbing or working on a ladder and always hold onto the handrail on stairs.
- Check the condition of the lines and other fall arrestors.
- Wear a personal flotation device (life jacket) and check the state of the sea, the movement of the ship, the swell as well as the on-site availability of emergency equipment (e.g. radio, flares) before starting to work over water or transferring between vessels.
- Start work without a detailed pre-job risk assessment to identify risks and control measures if you feel that the conditions are not safe or if you have not completely clarified safety and emergency procedures.
- Rely on your personal protective equipment, it is only the last available line of defense.
- Work within a risk of falling overboard if the task can be achieved by a safer method.
- Carry your equipment when transferring over water.
- Transfer to another vessel without first establishing visual and radio communications.
- Ensure yourself and others are positioned away from dangerous zones, such as suspended loads, stored pressure, moving machinery and snap-back areas.
- Keep a safe distance from dangerous areas and “lines of fire”, being aware of the consequences in case of damage or failure of mechanical equipment.
- Stay away from suspended loads, unprotected equipment and moving vehicles and do not approach places where objects may fall or dangerous work is carried out (e.g. blasting, welding, grinding, electrical works).
- Maintain a safe distance from lines under tension such as lifting/mooring lines, towing cables or suspended loads, considering snap-back areas.
- Make use of pedestrian walkways and safe zones where they are provided.
- Enter unauthorized areas.
- Bypass safety barriers or enter exclusion zones.
- Attempt a task for which you are not properly trained.
- During navigation, we obey the collision regulations, supplement navigational aids with visual/manual checks and avoid distractions and fatigue!
- Look out of the window!
- Comply with rest and work hours.
- Maintain a safe distance from grounding lines.
- Execute passage as per plan.
- Calculate enough Under Keel Clearance including dynamic factors such as Squat.
- Accept ECDIS / AIS tracking information without independent checking.
- Proceed at unsafe speed in heavy traffic or restricted visibility.
- Allow yourself to be distracted or use a cell-phone while on Navigational watch.
- We always have in mind our own and our co-workers’ safety during maintenance and testing of lifeboats.
According to 2017 data from the UK P&I Club, lifeboat tests are responsible for 60 deaths in the last ten years, or 16% of human losses at sea.
- Ensure that the boat is fully secured with all available means (gripes, harbor pins, lashings) before entering for maintenance.
- Discuss in detail and on a practical level the risks, the functioning of the release mechanisms, the roles and the operational procedures.
- Have fully trained staff conducting maintenance of boats, winches and brakes.
- Ensure proper supervision and means of communication.
- Avoid the unintended operation of on-load release mechanisms.
- Have people on board during test launching / recovery.
- Put crew in danger areas when boats/davits are moving (crushing, etc.).
- Leave hanging off pennants or securing devices in place after maintenance/testing.
- We are very cautious during hot work! We make sure spaces are free of flammable materials and gases before doing anything that requires the use of a flame or may produce sparks.
- Ensure that flammable materials have been removed from the workplace and adjacent spaces.
- Have fire-fighting equipment available and ready for use.
- Test for presence of flammable gases.
- Conduct risk assessment for hot work.
- Keep watch over adjacent spaces.
- Consider alternative work methods or equipment.
- Perform hot work without relevant permit.
- Deviate from the safety measures provided in the risk assessment/permit.