On most occasions an operation or task carried out on board goes well. Fortunately. Likewise, most crew members are doing their best to comply with and adhere to procedures and regulations. But often this is not enough, and they find themselves in a situation where they have to make sensible adjustments according to the demands of the circumstances in order to accomplish the actual work. And mistakes happen. We should remember that people’s actions are rarely malicious and they usually make sense to them at the time.

Recognising the difference between WAI and WAD

The safety management system (SMS), risk assessments, procedures, regulations, and other guidance are utilised by the crew in their shipboard operations to ensure they complete the job safely. These formal instructions and descriptions of what they need to do describe “work as imagined” (WAI). In other words, it considers the ideal situation for the given task. But the fact is that all situations are unique as the reality is far from ideal. This calls for the crew’s ability to understand each situation well and make good judgments all the time. In order to get prepared for the real work conditions, seafarers attend training and familiarisation throughout their career. While in real onboard conditions, seafarers may take shortcuts, or improvise how to solve a problem. We call the way any task is actually performed as “work as done” (WAD).

Sometimes the gap between the WAI and the WAD is stretched too much and safety becomes compromised. If the gap is too big, mistakes lead to incidents or accidents. Therefore, we must bridge the gap between WAI and WAD.

How do human factors come into the picture?

Whenever we read stories of maritime jobs gone wrong, we often see “human error” as the reason. In maritime, human error is cited as the leading cause (at least 75%) of incidents at sea. The traditional view of human error seems to suggest that the crew are the problem and that maritime operations will be safer without them.

But the crew are as much a source of safety as a source of error. It should be noted that the number of accidents avoided by seafarers is not reflected in statistics while crew members execute a lot of safety-critical tasks successfully every day. Nonetheless, people will make mistakes, and mistakes are typically due to conditions and systems that make work difficult. So, as mistakes usually occur in the interplay of human factors, increasing awareness of these factors can facilitate the identification of the gaps in actual work situations.

Taking a human factors approach

There are many things we can do to minimise the risk of people making mistakes. One important thing is to constantly review and reflect on how we perform every single job and allow for this reflection – not only evaluating what went wrong but also looking at what went well and why. The prerequisite for this is that we keep directing peoples’ attention towards conditions, behaviour and work process that influence safety performance.

Taking a human factors approach means recognising that the people on our ships know the most about their work and are key to any solution. In order to minimise human error, we must create conditions and systems that allow people to assess, decide and react, and make sure they have the skills and ability to do so.

How the Delta Method is built on the value of human factors

Even before human factors became the buzzword in the maritime industry, the Safety Delta concept had already recognised that human factors play a key role in building a proactive and resilient safety culture. In physics, the Delta ‘Δ’ represents the difference between two values and the Delta Method is focusing on the difference between WAI vs WAD.

What Safety Delta does to bridge the gap is exactly to direct people’s attention to crucial safety performance areas and involve them in making a change. We often see that bringing awareness of problems and critical work process is an eye-opener even to experienced seafarers as they are easily ‘blinded’ by busy schedules at work or by overconfidence and complacency. Understanding the conditions in which mistakes happen helps us prevent or correct them. We can help the crew focus on things that matter, and it especially matters how leaders respond when things go wrong or become difficult and that they take the opportunity to learn.

Safety Delta ensures an ongoing process of review, reflection, and improvement. It involves the Diagnosis, Dialogue, and Development stages to identify safety gaps, stimulate focused communication, and enhance crew skills and behaviours through collaborative training. All crew members – from the senior and junior officers to ratings and cadets as well as the office personnel – take part in shaping the on-board culture.

Addressing human factors in the development phase

It is our belief that leaders contribute to shaping conditions that influence what people do. We must therefore provide them with tools to accomplish that.

Once the three-stage Safety Delta cycle is completed, the vessel undergoes another cycle to help the crew determine any new or ongoing challenges, promote the dialogue, and support behaviour awareness and development. The Development phase provides learning opportunities that specifically relate to the subjects that have been identified and that have been discussed among all crew members. The current list of Safety Delta safety areas targets the different human factors, hereunder various soft skills that address the interaction among crew members as well as with their environment, systems and processes. All areas cover tangible subjects that are presented in a realistic and operational context for the crew to work in.

Joining forces in a network

Workplace, tools and activities can be designed to reduce mistakes and manage risk better. For this reason, we have developed a work group for our Safety Delta subscribing companies who aim at sharing and jointly developing best practices for meeting the high-quality standards of shipping transportation. Under the auspices of Green-Jakobsen, the network is using Safety Delta as the means to bring the companies a step ahead in the human factors management discussion, whether the demands are TMSA 3, SIRE 2.0, DryBMS, or customer demands.


This article was published in the Naftika Chronika Magazine, October 2022.

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