The human elements are what they are, and they are what make us human

18 Sep 2013 Bulletin: Issue 27 - Engineers and HE Resource

The human element is a generic term to describe what makes humans behave the way they do and the consequences that result. As a subject it is of great importance to everyone in the maritime industry because we all rely on the contributions of each other to succeed in our business.

Understanding how and why people do things and developing the skill of correct interpretation is a key element in the learning process of a ship’s Engineering Officer. 

The engine department on a ship may have completely different priorities to the deck. What may be the most important thing in the Chief Engineer's day could be the least important factor for the Officer of the Watch or Captain. A large part of the human element revolves around understanding the contribution of everyone in the ship's management team and taking these into account for day to day operations. 
The UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) publication The Human Element – a guide to human behaviour on the shipping industry lists eight basic aspects of human nature. These can be applied to the marine engineer as follows: 
1. Making sense of things. How does an engineer make sense of the things going on around them in machinery spaces on board? Situational awareness is affected by noise, vibration, touch, temperature, smell and appearance; all these give clues, but how much information is collected and processed in order to make valued decisions? The information we decide to use is the human element in us; if we believe we have all the information required to reach a successful outcome then we may disregard all other information. Experience plays a big part here but it does not always come with wisdom! Experience, however, allows us to reflect on training and previous situations that have required a similar outcome. 
2. Taking risks. When working with equipment that could cause damage to yourself and other machinery we try not to take risks as this can have devastating effects in the Engine Room. Instead we turn to our training, and experiences to make decisions and create logical answers. The main factors that influence risks outline the reasoning for Engineers not to take them: the amount of control we think we have; the amount of value something has for us; the extent to which things are familiar to us. However, the best option is not to take any risks, but little would ever be achieved if this was a golden rule. 
3. Making Decisions. How do people make decisions? To make a good decision requires experience but often they are made on a whim with little information. Then the amount of time available to think is also crucial. Picture a sudden unexpected explosion and fire in an engine room. Do the Engineers have time to think about what to do next? Or has the thought process been reduced because they have trained and drilled for this contingency all their working lives? Whilst learning we may think that we have made a good decision but as our experience grows we may realise that our decision making is quite different. We must recognise when we are about to make a bad decision and this will only come with experience. 
4. Making Mistakes. Every mistake we make (and everyone makes them) is an opportunity to learn. Simple mistakes, if not corrected, can lead to bigger problems, such as reading a gauge incorrectly. Temperature or pressure may build to a point that is disastrous, and it all began with a small error. A fundamental human strength is to recover from mistakes. This is essential for learner development. 
5. Fatigue and stress. Fatigue and stress affect all the processes described above. Fatigue is the most common factor found in accident investigation and stress levels are often amplified by constant exposure to noise, vibration, fumes, lighting, ship motion and temperature. 
6. Learning and Developing. That we learn from experience is well documented. But, we also learn from working with others who have experience. Every experienced engineer has a responsibility to those learning the craft. Colleges and Universities can provide a solid foundation for ‘experiential learning’ in the workplace and, combined, they provide a solid platform for development. Learning should be managed in order that correct and safe procedures allow and encourage those developing their skills to do ‘the right things right’. 
7. Working with others. Effective people skills are key to working in a team and even alone (where our work affects others). Sharing common, clearly defined goals and objectives can help this process as can remembering it’s not just ‘the task’ that’s important, but that individuals in the team have opinions, views and contributions to make. 
8. Communication. Clear communication is essential; we must check that others understand what we want by incorporating a feedback loop. This is required practice in marine and air radio communications to ensure correct understanding, but humans rarely do it when it is only an option. Clear communication (simple language instead of complicated jargon) is critical to safe working at all times. 
These human elements affect everyone who works in the maritime industry. For engineers, an awareness and appreciation of them can help strengthen practice and procedures in safety-critical areas such as engine rooms and other machinery spaces. The human elements are what they are, and they are what make us human. 
The Human Element – a guide to human behaviour in the shipping industry is downloadable from: guide_to_human