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The Human Element In Marine Engineering

David Squire,
The Nautical Institute

What is the human element? Also known as “human factors”, it is simply about people and how they interact with other people, machinery and systems. The International Maritime Organization definition says it affects maritime safety and marine environmental protection and involves all activities performed by ships’ crews, shore-based management, regulatory bodies, recognized organizations, shipyards, legislators and other relevant parties.

In ensuring the safe conduct of the ship and the safe and timely delivery of its cargo, the technical operation of a ship is as important as its navigation. The machinery and systems are what make the ship work, and it is the engineers, both ashore and afloat, who make sure that it works efficiently, effectively and in a manner acceptable to the crew.

Today, there is a perception that the knowledge, skills and experience of engineering staff, both ashore and afloat, are not keeping pace with the technological revolution. Increasingly, safety investigation reports tell us that a causal feature of a breakdown was a failure to diagnose the problem, largely because the technical team had not been properly trained on that system; or because the manufacturer’s handbook and ship system operating procedures were not written in the native language of the reader and were difficult to understand; or that the signage or system labelling was not in the native language of the crew.

We have moved to an era of condition-based maintenance and repair by replacement such that traditional engineering skills are being rapidly diminished. We read also of poor leadership and communication, between the chief engineer and the master, and the mixed-nationality crew. The onboard team is becoming “hands off”, reduced to ensuring that the regulations are complied with, supervising riding crews, maintaining installed systems, and managing technical, commercial and environmental risk for the duration of a charter. Meanwhile, technical superintendents risk making technical decisions with a financial focus; and with an inexact knowledge of the systems on a particular ship.

Given all these technical and managerial considerations, combined with a whole range of crew and staff, we must ask: How do we incorporate the essential human element into marine engineering?

Firstly, machinery spaces and machinery control rooms should meet the needs of the operator, be easy to use, easy to maintain and, above all, reliable. Human-centered design (HCD) focuses on making a design usable. It is the process of systematically applying human factors and ergonomic knowledge and techniques to minimize human error, enhance effectiveness and efficiency, improve human working conditions and counteract the possible adverse effects of use on individual health, safety and performance.

Secondly, the ship designer needs to listen to those who are going to operate and maintain the machinery and systems and, even better, to have one or more of those people on hand while building, or direct contact with a human factors engineer during the build. Knowing the crew, organization and specific strengths and weaknesses will help to build a better ship.

Thirdly, the machinery spaces and machinery control rooms must be designed with maintainability in mind; critical machinery and systems must be identified and have sufficient built-in redundancy and onboard spares to ensure that the ship is not completely disabled in the event of a breakdown. Troubleshooting instructions should be easy to understand and written in the language(s) of those who are likely to use them.

Finally, due consideration must be given to accessibility of systems and machinery for maintenance; to removal routes; and to ensuring that all who are involved with the technical management and operation of any ship are properly trained and sufficiently experienced. Marine engineering is technical by nature, but machinery relies on people for design, build, operation and maintenance. The human element cannot be ignored.

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