Smooth seas ahead: enhancing maritime operations through human factors 

by | 21st May 2024 | Safety, The Naval Architect - News

Home News Smooth seas ahead: enhancing maritime operations through human factors 

Two MARIN employees on board a vessel observing the operation as part of the Human Centred Design approach . Source: MARIN

By Hans Huisman, team leader, Human Factors, MARIN  

The human element in the maritime industry gets more and more attention. Why is this happening, and is it relevant to have the human element addressed more in the maritime industry?    

It is often quoted that more than 80% of shipping accidents are caused by human error. It is difficult to prove where this 80% figure originates, but the fact is that human error is indeed in many cases the cause of an accident happening with technically sound vessels. This is most likely a key driver for setting the human element in the spotlight because accidents are expensive in terms of economic damage, injuries, lost lives and environmental harm. So, no surprise that the suspected cause, the human element, is very relevant and therefore gets increasing attention in the growing maritime industry.   

This article illustrates that the Human Factors discipline is broad and provides various methods to enhance safety and efficiency of maritime operations during the operational phase but even more importantly during the design and developments phase of these maritime operations. In other words, this article depicts that the human in the operation is not just the mariner on the bridge – many more human actors are involved and play an important role in what sometimes can result in a sequence of events leading up to the ‘so-called’ human error on the bridge.  


Human factors in the various parts of the industry  

To get a better understanding of why a technically sound vessel with a well-trained and experienced crew gets into trouble it is worthwhile to zoom in where human factors in the maritime world play a role. Most attention is focused on the frontline operator, the one who pushed the button the moment before it all went wrong. Seems logical, but is it sensible? Only partly. The frontline operator, the mariner, finds him- or herself in a situation which has built up over time. Time can be the order of minutes, hours but also many years. A mariner does not do their job in splendid isolation – he/she is part of a complex ecosystem with many actors, all having their own drives and agendas.    

Zooming in on the vessel itself, a mariner is part of the crew on board. Zooming out a bit, the mariner contributes to the operation of a shipping company which in turn is contracted by other parties to, for example, transport goods from A to B or perform a job at sea. Zooming out further, the mariner is tasked to operate a vessel which has been designed by engineers for a certain type of operation, meeting requirements defined in the vessel design phase by other engineers. The mariner is given a set of tools on board, designed and developed by supplier companies of maritime components – for example, the bridge instruments. Of course, this is all carried out in line with current regulations and class rules for each component of the vessel the mariner is responsible for.   


Human-centred operations design  

Performing the various tasks on the bridge is supported by a number of systems, some being more user friendly than others. Having equipment on the bridge that provides optimal support to the (navigational) tasks generally leads to safer and more efficient operation. This is no surprise of course. In terms of human factors, a human-centred design (HCD) approach guarantees the design of the bridge layout and the development of equipment which supports the crew best and reduces the risk of human error in system usage most. A well-designed user interface is based on good design decision rather than a coincidence in hoping the system will meet the requirements of the crew. In brief, an HCD approach involves experienced operators in the design process.    

In an iterative way, with a starting point of a good understanding of the daily operational life, prototypes are being developed. First as low-cost desktop equipment that is easy to modify, and in a number of steps growing towards fully capable systems being evaluated in a whole task environment. This can be a bridge simulator or on board a vessel. It requires involvement of scarce resources, the experienced mariner, and this is a difficult economic and scheduling hurdle. But in terms of business risk, modifying an end product after it has been put into service brings a lot more costs than the limited time spent on an HCD approach.  

Human-centred design does not only apply to the design of technical systems but can also be applied to procedures and job definitions. Ill-defined procedures and ill-defined team roles are a precursor to human error somewhere down the road. Explicit design of procedures and team roles is feasible both for teams cooperating as part of one single organisation, and across organisations. In both cases, well-defined roles and ways of working are valuable and result in a safer and more efficient operation. The effort to streamline business processes across organisation boundaries is more complex but worthwhile to pursue. In a technical environment, as the maritime industry is, it is sometimes overlooked that both the organisation and working methods can be designed in a structured way rather than growing organically over time.  

MARIN Full Motion Bridge simulator resized

Mariners in the Full Motion Bridge simulator at the new MARIN Seven Oceans Simulator Centre


‘Human in the loop’ simulator evaluations  

Due to rapid advances in technology, simulations are increasingly used as a good instrument not only to train people but even more so to develop, evaluate and validate new technologies and processes before operational deployment. Setting up a valid simulator evaluation requires a high-fidelity simulation environment in which the crew is truly submerged in a copy of the real world and is challenged to do their daily jobs as seriously as the real world would require. Just as important as this highly realistic simulated shipping operation is creating a scenario which is partly implemented in the simulator, such as vessel behaviour (wind and weather for example), as well as clear instructions for the tasks at hand, operational procedures and events scripted to occur during the simulation, which add to the realism of the situation created for the crew.   

A third topic to cover in a simulator evaluation is the recording of pivotal data in order to draw conclusions about the performance of the new technology and the crew. Since the evaluation is often used as part of a development process of new solutions, the data recording serves as an objective basis for decision making business processes for further investments. One of the sources of data which can be recorded is the human operator themself. For instance, eye scanning behaviour, facial expression, pupil diameter, heart rate (variability) and skin conduction give an insight into the effort spent by the operator while performing a task. It is this insight into the balance between spent effort and resulting performance which is relevant when evaluating future concepts and deciding whether the operator is optimally supported, or if modifications should be made in order to improve support for the operator.  



This article started by saying that human error is in many cases the cause of incidents and accidents and subsequently the human factors contribution to safer and more efficient operations has been illustrated. Still, incidents and accidents will occur, no matter how good the design of the vessel, the equipment, the procedures, the organisation, and the competence level of the crew. Also, in accident prevention and responding to accidents human factors has its role. On the prevention side, a safety assessment is a well-known method to estimate the probability of occurrence of certain hazards and to estimate the consequences of hazards. As part of such probability and consequence estimations the role of the human operator should be an integral part. Which human errors can occur and what is their likelihood? In addition, if a hazard occurs, which actions can be taken by the operator to limit the consequences or which actions may even increase the severity of the consequences? These questions are addressed in a safety assessment and form the basis for implementing mitigating measures to reduce the risks.   

Another safety related human factors area is reporting and learning from incidents and mistakes. An incident or accident caused by human error is an expensive lesson to learn from for the future, making sure the same mistake will not happen again. A prerequisite for people to report their role in incidents and be open in explaining what happened in an incident and accident is that people are allowed to be open and give a full explanation of what happened. If they are not directly being prosecuted and being accused of bad behaviour but listened to with the intention to learn from them, they will dare to share. In the maritime domain, such a no-blame culture hardly exists, and the maritime industry deprives itself of the possibility of learning from expensive lessons, as accidents are.  

The Human Factors discipline has many aspects, and this article just scratches the surface and intends by no means to be complete. Striving to address the human factors at play in the maritime industry in a more structured and coherent manner will pay off without a doubt. Applying human-centred design, conducting ‘human in the loop’ (simulator) evaluations before operational implementation and last, but not least, learning from incidents and accidents is not rocket science and concern existing methods already in use in various industries and ready to be used (more) in the maritime industry. Doing so will contribute significantly to many areas in the maritime industry to increase safety, efficiency, and keep it an attractive business to work in. 


On 8-10 October, RINA and MARIN are jointly hosting the  Technical Conference on Human Factors in Wageningen, Netherlands. The event is open to all interested parties. To register, or for further information please visit:


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