Taking into account human limitations in ship design

There are several design improvements that can minimize the possibility of human fatigue and stress.

Providing, supporting and enhancing safety in the maritime domain has always been one of the greatest challenges for ship operators. Time pressure, dynamic environment, uncertainty, stress, and organizational shortcomings all contribute to a demanding task environment which promotes good decisions as the decisive factor for successful operations.

The capacity of seafarers to master these challenges requires more than technical skills and expertise. A set of cognitive, social and interpersonal skills - Non-Technical Skills (NTS) - or Soft Skills, is required. NTS complement technical skills and contribute to safe and efficient task performance and comprise: situational awareness; decision making; communication; teamwork; leadership; managing stress; and coping with fatigue.

Human errors are rooted in systemic causes which are embedded in the structure of operations within the maritime domain. Near-miss and accident analysis, and NTS surveys by the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA) have shown the inability of seafarers to cope effectively with both technical and non-technical skills. To date, safety in the maritime domain is mainly restricted to ensuring that ‘as few things as possible go wrong’ (Safety-I). The next step is Safety-II in which the focus is on how to redesign the ship and onboard operations to ensure that ‘as many things as possible go right’.

In the context of Safety-II, naval architects and marine engineers should reconsider ship design in a holistic way according to the impact of NTS to safety; situational awareness and fatigue are almost always present in major maritime catastrophes. If stressful conditions are combined with significant human fatigue then situational awareness is highly impaired and the consequences have been proven to be more than often, dramatic.
There are several design improvements that can minimize the possibility of human fatigue and stress, while at the same time they contribute to the increase of situational awareness. Designers should adapt their approach so as to minimize the impact of physical environment, fatigue, and stress factors against ship safety. In the context of Human-Centred Design (HCD) these fatigue and stress-related factors can include:

  • Level of automation;
  • Physical comfort in accommodation and work spaces;
  • Location and distance of quarters;
  • Lighting;
  • Temperature;
  • Noise;
  • Vibrations;
  • Ventilation;
  • Ship motions

By focusing on these factors the designer can improve the ship design by providing an upgraded working and living environment. While most of these factors can be assessed by various areas of engineering, others like vibrations and ship motions are material for naval architects as they rest upon specific ship design elements.

To date, the integration of HCD in the overall ship design is derived by class society guidelines that address the human element on a voluntary basis. However, the maritime sector seems now to be more mature than ever to integrate HCD principles into a holistic ship design framework.

The time has come; all the signs are there, but will the shipping industry meet our expectations?