By Davis Matthew

The Human Factor in the maritime industry



The human factor has played a dominant role in the maritime industry since time immemorial. No wonder maritime laws such as Consolato del Mare, or Regulation of the Sea, explicitly defined the duties and responsibilities of the masters, captains, and duties of seamen and their wages, jettison, freight, average contribution, salvage and so on. One of the reasons such maritime laws existed was because human nature is very unpredictable. Every individual differently understands and reacts to a situation. Different people deal differently with the difficulty, complexity, workload, and pressures of their tasks in emergencies as well as during routine operations. Such maritime codes were put in place to ensure the safety of the mariners and the smooth functioning of maritime operations.

The Human Factor is the most significant asset of the maritime industry. The human factor, with all its strengths and weaknesses, can either prevent a disaster or cause it. So, a majority of shipping operations need high quality and well-trained staff who can be deployed in shore- based management facilities as well as on board the ships. Most importantly, an invigorating link between the management and staff, which focusses on all aspects of the human factor, is essential for a safe and efficient maritime operation. The tragic incident on Saga Rose shows how the absence of that link can lead to catastrophic disasters when human factor is involved. On 11 June 2008, a cruise ship, Saga Rose, was visiting Southampton, UK. A petty officer, who was also the vessel’s Second Bosun, was instructed to test the water in the ship’s ballast tank. He had to determine whether it contained fresh or salt water. A permit to carry out the task was not sought because of the assumption that the tank was full and the water was within easy reach from outside the tank. However, when the Second Bosun arrived at the scene he found that the tank had very little water. Despite knowing the risks and being aware of the vessel’s safety procedures for entering enclosed spaces, he entered the tank. There was insufficient oxygen in the tank and he collapsed instantly. The vessel’s motorman, who also happened to be a close friend of the Second Bosun, saw him lying at the bottom of the ballast tank. He quickly raised the alarm and entered the tank to help his friend and he too collapsed. The onboard emergency response team responded immediately and came with a breathing apparatus. The local emergency services were also called to assist. The team successfully evacuated the motorman from the tank and revived him. However, the Second Bosun died before any help could be provided to him.

In this tragic incident, the human factor played a key role. Firstly, the permit was not sought because of the assumption that the tank was full. Secondly, the petty office violated the clearly laid-out safety procedures. Thirdly, the motorman reacted emotionally to an emergency situation, which proved very fatal for him. There are have been many such incidents in the past. Most of the maritime accident investigations suggest the involvement of the human factor.



The International Maritime Organization (IMO), a specialized agency of the United Nations, acknowledges the importance of the human factor. It, thus, regulates the maritime industry with policies that are in line with the activities performed by shore-based personnel, crew on ships, shipyards, organizational bodies, legislators, maritime education and training and so on. By focusing on the human factor, IMO is trying to establish a pragmatic and refreshing link between the offshore and onshore management to promote and enhance the safety culture.

In its 20th session in November 1997, IMO adopted resolution A.850. This resolution recognized the need for increased focus on activities related to humans for the safe operation of a ship. It also emphasized the need to achieve and maintain high standards of safety and environmental protection for significantly reducing maritime casualties. IMO acknowledges the fact that in one way or another all marine casualties and incidents involve human factors. That is why, in the 21st century, IMO places more focus on people and has included the human factor as a mandatory consideration in the work of all of its Committees and Sub- Committees. This means that matters concerning people will be woven into the context of all international regulatory regimes. It recognizes that skilled, educated and qualified seafarers are of fundamental importance. And, therefore, IMO emphasizes on training and certification of the seafarers.

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