The Human Element in the work of the IMO

02 Sep 2013 Bulletin: Issue 12 - Fit for purpose Resource

The lone figure standing atop the international memorial to seafarers outside the London headquarters of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) is symbolic of the importance that IMO attaches to the human element in shipping - the complex multi-dimensional issue that involves the entire spectrum of human activities performed by ships' crews, shore based management, regulatory bodies and others.

An analysis of 187 instances of groundings and collisions carried out by IMO’s Sub- Committee on Flag State Implementation (FSI) indicates that, in 150 cases, or some 80 per cent, the human element was a contributory factor. Broadly equivalent results have emerged from similar analyses and fatigue has emerged as a significant factor in maritime accidents – along with others such as communication, competence, culture, experience, health, situational awareness, loneliness, isolation, stress and working conditions.


IMO has to date accomplished a significant amount of work in addressing the human element in shipping, at sea and ashore. In 1991, a Working Group was established on the role of the Human Element in Maritime Casualties and since then Assembly resolutions have set forth the human element vision, principles and goals for the Organization (resolution A.850(20) updated by A.947(23)) and requested the IMO Committees to focus their attention on “shifting emphasis onto people” (A.900(21)).

Key human element regulations include the STCW Convention – particularly the revision of the Convention in 1995 - and the ISM Code – mandatory for most ships since 2002. IMO has also developed Guidelines for the Investigation of Human Factors in Marine Casualties and the Investigation of Marine Casualties and Incidents, and comprehensive Guidance on fatigue mitigation and management has been published.

There is also the STCW-F Convention for fishing vessel personnel, which unfortunately is not yet in force due to lack of sufficient ratifications - but this has not stopped IMO from holding a series of regional familiarization seminars around the world and developing a number of model courses for fishing vessel personnel, which are nearing completion.

Meanwhile, IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) agreed at its 81st session in May 2006 that a comprehensive review of the STCW Convention and STCW Code is needed, in order to ensure that the Convention meets the new challenges facing the shipping industry including, but not limited to, rapid technological advances today and in the future. The MSC instructed the Sub-Committee on Standards of Training and Watchkeeping (STW) to define, as a first step, the issues to be reviewed and advise the MSC accordingly, before embarking on the actual work. The target completion date is 2008.

In the light of analyses of accidents indicating that fatigue was a main contributing factor, a new work programme item on review of the principles for establishing the safe manning levels of ships has also been included in the work programme of the STW Sub-Committee.

IMO’s Joint MSC/Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) Working Group on Human Element continues to meet annually and MSC 81 approved MSC/MEPC circulars on: checklist for bodies; strengthening of human element input to the work of IMO; framework for IMO consideration of ergonomics and work environment; and the Organization’s strategy to address the human element, which includes a related action plan.

Amongst other items, the next session of the Joint Working Group on the Human Element, meeting during MSC 82 in November-December 2006, will analyse the report of a study into the impact and effectiveness of the ISM Code which was carried out by a Group of Independent Experts selected from administrations, organizations, academia and the shipping industry. Based on the data collected, the report concludes that where the ISM Code had been embraced as a positive step toward efficiency through a safety culture, tangible positive benefits were evident; and ISM Code compliance could be made easier through a reduction in the administrative process.

From the above, it can be seen that work on the human factor continues to evolve – while it remains at the heart of IMO’s work. Effective implementation of the STCW Convention and the ISM Code through appropriate education and training will continue to have a significant impact on the quality of seafarers and the operational safety of ships. By focusing on the human element in general IMO is strengthening the link between management ashore and performance afloat to sustain a safety culture. The achievement of safer, more secure and efficient shipping on clean oceans will always be dependent on human factors.

The various Conventions and Resolutions mentioned in this article can be downloaded from the IMO website: