Human factors in vessel performance

Human factors in vessel performance

The shipping industry is “missing a trick” by overlooking the impact that human factors can have on optimising vessel performance, says Patrick Joseph, master mariner and director of UIRTUS Marine Services.

The UK Health and Safety Executive, defines human factors as “environmental, organisational and job factors, and human and individual characteristics which influence behaviour at work in a way which can affect health and safety”.  However, according to Mr Joseph, the shipping industry too often focuses the human factors discussion solely on preventing accidents and ill-health and overlooks the impact that human factors can have on vessel performance optimisation.

Speaking at a conference hosted by Digital Ship on vessel performance optimisation, Mr Joseph said that as technology evolves, there is increasing opportunity to cut costs and adopt advanced digital systems to help manage vessel performance. However, he believes that there is a lack of discussion around how these technologies will affect a seafarer’s role and their capability to operate the system or vessel at optimum performance. He explained that people are typically put into an environment and they are not expected to fail. “There is a general assumption that you put people in the office and on the ship and they should perform at the level you expect them to. But the reality is that humans can fail and sometimes at the most opportune time. The shipping industry doesn’t take this to heart. You have to incorporate aspects of human error into your design and assessments.” Mr Joseph believes that, “If you set procedures right you will get humans to perform a task much better and more efficiently.”

What do ‘human factors’ include? Image courtesy of Patrick Joseph, director of UIRTUS Marine Services

Ensuring seafarers have sufficient training and motivation to operate a vessel as efficiently as possible is another area of the human factors discussion. Mr Joseph says that he sees minimum requirements met or the required level of training given but going beyond this is not something that occurs frequently. In his eyes, “Not enough effort goes into ensuring that each individual when carrying out the task is able to undertake the responsibilities to a regular standard on a regular basis.” Seafarers need to be trained with the right skills for the job, not stipulated by IMO regulations. He urges shipping organisations to implement their own standards to improve competence in the team.

This is especially important with contract workers, according to Mr Joseph. From a human factors perspective, optimising vessel performance requires consideration of skill levels of all types of workers. Even with contract or temporary workers, there must be some level of assessment to ensure the work is carried out to a level that sets the rest of the team up for success. “Human beings need to be able to perform to their best,” he said. “The number of times we have seen errors because of maintenance done wrongly, translating into an incident three months later. We want to make sure that from a human factors perspective, the human beings that are going to carry out assessments and maintenance are performing to their best.”

Mr Joseph also points to the issue of reducing crew in a bid to cut costs. “This is where shipping companies get it very wrong. There is a natural instinct to cut people and we in the shipping industry don’t do enough to make these changes in a systematic way.” Mr Joseph believes that there is a lack of discussion around the consequences and impacts to vessel performance when human resources are cut and fewer staff are left picking up the slack. Referring to a previous situation he experienced where deck crew were reduced to such a level that in certain situations, officers had to send out the cooks onboard the ship to assist with an issue. “Using a cook to help run stations is clearly not having the right person to do the job. This opens up the potential for an incident. Inefficiency stays on board and people just live with it.”

Mr Joseph is also of the opinion that few shipping companies look at the staffing levels that are required on a particular ship on a particular voyage. “Workload management is completely left to the master and chief engineer – this is perfectly fine but what do they have as a backup during upsets or moments of urgency?” Cutting crew means that in an emergency there is a lack of specifically skilled workers to deal with the situation.

Another issue that Mr Joseph notes is the challenges that increasingly digital processes and technologies bring. “This creates a different challenge from a human factors perspective,” he said. “The increase in technology and connectivity has caused more grief for the day to day work of the seafarer.” He attributes this to the fact that many aspects of work that were carried out on shore are now being pushed onto the ship because of the connectivity available there. While this provides some benefit, he believes that the impact this has on those on the ship is not taken into account as much as it should be. “Increasing connectivity needs a much deeper look from the people who are implementing the stakes to check if they have done it right, to see if they have taken on the human element.”

Furthermore, there is an increasing human-computer interface with seafarers relying on the information given to them via a screen. Mr Joseph explained that when he was a junior officer, he was instructed to simply look out of the window. Today, junior officers are spending more time in front of the monitors and they are building their lifestyle on this. The human being is tasked more and more because of such technologies and often their behaviour can be affected if a technology does not perform as expected. This creates additional pressure and stress on the crew that can result in lower vessel performance. The human being has to be understood and the impact the technology, both good and bad, must be evaluated.

Ultimately, human factors is not just about reducing incidents but is about implementing key human factors principles with a focus on the organisation, job execution and providing necessary support for the individual to optimise performance. This includes motivating seafarers to operate a vessel more efficiently, which will come from building a wider culture that ensures all involved are set up for success. The first thing for an organisation to do is to identify where its human factors perspective is today. “This will allow areas that need improvement to be identified and improved as you can’t manage what you don’t measure.” Performance management also requires the shipowner, the technical management side and the operators and charterers to make a joint effort towards the same goal. “Everyone has to work together.”

Mr Joseph spoke at the VPO forum in London. View his presentation here.