The human element is a topic widely discussed in shipping and every other industry where health and safety are a concern and incidents are a sad reality of everyday operations.
rying to highlight the root causes behind maritime incidents, terms like “human performance” and “human factors” have become increasingly common in recent years, the one often used as a replacement for the other. What do these terms refer to?
When referring to “human error”, it is often assumed that incidents are attributed to human involvement. According to EMSA, 89.5% of all maritime occurrences from 2014 to 2020 were related to human action. This gives the impression that people cause incidents, leading us to forget that most decisions and, therefore mistakes, are often themselves the result of the way the whole workplace is set up -from working patterns to the ways that control is ensured and from the ways in which people interact to the ways in which leaders influence the whole culture in an organization.
At the same time, most human factor studies focus on human performance ‘at work’. However, the particularity of the maritime context is that the working environment and the living environment are the same for seafarers. In the seafaring world, people work and sleep, stress and relax, eat and recreate, all of these on a ship and usually for a long period. Amid the unique shipping environment, what do human factors and human performance refer to?
What do “human factors” mean?
The World health organization defines human factors (also known as “Ergonomics”) as the “environmental, organizational and job factors, and human and individual characteristics which influence behavior at work in a way which can affect health and safety.” This means that the scope of human factors is shaped by three interrelated aspects which cannot be examined separately:
- The job: Τhis relates to the nature of the tasks required, the workload, the working environment, and the procedures. An example is the everyday routine of the seafarer onboard the ship.
- The individual: This includes the seafarers’ competence, skills, personality, attitude, and risk perception, which influence their behavior in complex ways. Characteristics related to personality are fixed, while others, such as hard and soft skills, can be worked on and improved.
- The organization: This includes work patterns, safety culture, internal communications, leadership, and so on. In a complex industry like shipping, the culture of a firm can have a major influence on shaped work behaviors, affecting not only ship efficiency but also ship health and safety.
Examples of human factors in shipping
The UK MCA has identified 12 most common human factors -under the name “Deadly Dozen”- which can affect maritime safety. These twelve elements influence people to make mistakes:
- Situational Awareness: Do you REALLY know what is happening?
- Alerting: Do you really speak up when you should?
- Communication: Do you really understand everyone?
- Complacency: Is everything really OK?
- Culture: Do you really have a good safety culture?
- Local Practices: Efficiency or dangerous shortcut?
- Teamwork: How well do you really work together?
- Capability: Is your team really capable?
- Pressure: Just busy or dangerously overloaded?
- Distractions: Multi-tasking or dangerously distracted?
- Fatigue: Just tired or dangerously fatigued?
- Fit for Duty: Are you really fit to work?
What is human performance?
Human performance is a series of behaviors executed to accomplish specific results. Performance is typically the outcome of results (what people do) plus behavior (how they do what they do). For instance, why do some people always wear their personnel protective equipment without exception, whereas others will only wear it if they are afraid that they are going to get caught?
Human Performance specialists emphasize more on behaviors, such as leadership and teamwork. The primary methods of intervention for Human Performance are primarily training, coaching, awareness-raising, and behavior change methods that tend not to be design-led.
The aim of Human Performance is to reduce errors and manage controls. Having “correct” procedures in place does not necessarily mean that people will always follow them without making errors. This is where the role of the safety programs lies: To acknowledge that people make errors, understand why they do them in order to reduce or eliminate future errors, and, eventually, protect workers from their own errors.
Human factors VS Human performance
Profession (aka “Ergonomist”)
Not a specialized profession
Focus on system performance
Focus on individual performance
Emerged from many disciplines
Used mostly in psychology, physiology and industrial applications
It becomes evident that Human Performance represents the human contribution to system performance and refers to how people perform their work, while Human Factors inform how human performance is supported. The primary focus of human performance is to study tools that can be provided to reduce the error and the resulting implications of errors. Human Factors is wider, including interactions among humans and other elements of a system. From this perspective, it could be said that human factors and human performance are complementary to each other.
Overall, understanding both terms is critical for incident investigation. While there is no way to eliminate all dangers in a workplace, proper education can make a big difference in mitigating risk. Safety training is a starting point for most organizations. And “if you think safety is expensive, try an accident”.
In case you missed it…
OCIMF 8 principles on human factors
- People will make mistakes
- People’s actions are rarely malicious and usually make sense to them at the time.
- Mistakes are typically due to conditions and systems that make work difficult.
- Understanding the conditions in which mistakes happen helps us prevent or correct them.
- People know the most about their work and are key to any solution.
- Plan, tools and activities can be designed to reduce mistakes and manage risk better.
- Leaders contribute in shaping conditions that influence what people do.
- It matters how leaders respond when things go wrong and take opportunity to learn.