Shipping safety - Human error comes in many forms

Whether it’s crew members on phones or an over-reliance on other forms of technology, fatigue, or a failure of organizational culture and behavior, human error remains a key safety issue and an underlying factor in many claims, meaning the quality of crew and ship owners’ overall safety culture are of increasing importance to risk assessment.
In October 2018, a Tunisian ferry Ulysse collided with the container ship CSL Virginia in the Mediterranean Sea after the officer on watch was found to have been distracted by a mobile phone. An investigation into the collision concluded that the ferry’s officer on watch was on his own, on the phone and away from the radar. It also found the container ship’s crew, under pressure from the owner, had “inadequately” moored the vessel in the middle of a merchant shipping lane [1].
Incidents like this are not uncommon. A series of human errors, including an overreliance on electronic charts, led to the grounding and total loss of the Maltese registered 2,194 teu capacity container ship Kea Trader in the Pacific Ocean on July 12, 2017. According to the incident report, the grounding of the six-month-old ship was the result of the deck officer’s mistakes and overconfidence in the vessel’s electronic navigation chart [2]. “Electronic navigation has been prevalent in the global shipping fleet for the past two decades, yet accidents continue to happen,” says Captain Rahul Khanna, Global Head of Marine Risk Consulting at AGCS. “It’s part of the bigger problem of human error and comes down to training and the safety culture of the organization.”
"People believe that technology makes them safer, but they do not allow for the human element and the need for training," Captain Andrew Kinsey, Senior Marine Consultant at AGCS. Photo: Adobe Stock.
The grounding of the Kea Trader was one of the most complex container ship salvages since the 2011 grounding of the MV Rena in New Zealand in 2011. A year and a half after the vessel struck a reef, the wreck removal operation was still ongoing at the end of 2018, with initial efforts focusing on preventing pollution and the removal of over 750 containers. “We have seen serious losses from an overreliance on electronic chart displays and human error on the part of crew,” adds Captain Andrew Kinsey, Senior Marine Consultant at AGCS. “We now have a generation of seafarers that have grown up trusting what they see on a screen. Without appropriate training, however, they can be lulled into a false sense of security. This is a serious problem that we see in repeated cases. People believe that technology makes them safer, but they do not allow for the human element and the need for training – ensuring crews have a solid background in the fundamentals of sound navigation and situational awareness.”
In October 2018, a Tunisian ferry Ulysse collided with the container ship CSL Virginia in the Mediterranean Sea after the officer on watch was found to have been distracted by a mobile phone. Photo: Premar Mediterranee.
Human error was determined to be a factor in the grounding of the MV Rena off New Zealand in 2011. Photo: New Zealand Defence Force.

“It has become clear that while electronic charts can be a good addition to bridge safety, training in their use is not always as good as it could be,” adds Chris Turberville, Head of Marine Hull & Liabilities, UK, AGCS. “It is imperative that not only training on the new equipment is given, but also training on how to use it in conjunction with radar and other bridge equipment. Simulation is a great way of providing this integrated training.”

It is estimated that 75% to 96% of marine accidents can involve human error [3]. Furthermore, AGCS analysis of almost 15,000 marine liability insurance claims between 2011 and 2016 shows human error to be a primary factor in 75% of the value of all claims analyzed – equivalent to over $1.6bn of losses. Given the role of human error in so many incidents, the quality of crew and ship owners’ overall safety culture are of increasing importance to risk assessment. “How an operator takes care of the crew can be seen in the claims pattern. Good conditions, working hours, salaries and opportunities for career development, as well as access to training, fresh air and exercise will all help improve crew quality,” says Justus Heinrich, Chief Underwriter Marine Hull, Central and Eastern Europe at AGCS.

Yet a survey of 2,800 maritime employees by recruiter Halcyon Recruitment and training provider Coracle [4] reveals decreasing confidence in shipping industry job security, as volatile market conditions continue to impact. Over half of shore-based employees surveyed are actively looking to change jobs with nearly two thirds worried about job security. Crew costs are a soft factor in what is a cost-conscious industry. This will be an area to watch as ship owners face the increased cost of operating under the International Maritime Organization’s pollution prevention treaty MARPOL Annex VI emissions cap, Heinrich predicts. “My fear is that we could see an increase in human error and claims related to fatigue or a lack of crew engagement,” says Heinrich. “As part of client risk analysis, insurers such as AGCS now routinely dig deeper into the quality of crewing to see if operators are doing more than the required minimum.”

[1] GCaptain.com, Human Error ID’d In Mediterranean Ro-Ro’s Collision With Container Ship, January 2019
[2] Safety4Sea, A Course of Human Errors Led To Kea Trader Grounding, July 2018
[3] Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty, Safety & Shipping 1912-2012. From Titanic to Costa Concordia
[4] Halcyon Recruitment, 10th Maritime Employee Survey Reveals Decreasing Confidence in Shipping Industry Job Security, March 2019
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