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Human error remains the most important factor in marine accidents

Safety improving, but challenges remain

Human error remains the most important factor in marine accidents

While huge strides continue to be made in improving marine safety, human error remains the most important factor in marine accidents.

And competitive pressures coupled with the increasing size of vessels mean that training and quality of crew are becoming ever more important, experts say.

Marine safety is an issue that is always near the top of the agenda for the International Union of Marine Insurance, according to its secretary general, Lars Lange.

He said that marine insurers are “key stakeholders” in the effort to improve marine safety.

IUMI works closely with organizations including the London-based International Maritime Organization, a United Nations body.

Most casualties are the result either of equipment failure or human error or a combination of the two, with human error the dominant factor, said Gordon Street, claims manager at Marsh Ltd. in London.

A report last year by Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty, a unit of Munich-based Allianz S.E., showed that while shipping safety has improved greatly over the past 100 years — since the sinking of the Titanic — and the size of the world's commercial shipping fleet has trebled in that time, there still are key challenges to marine safety. The main challenge, according to the report, is human error, which accounts for more than 75% of marine losses.

“The reason behind any given casualty is usually complex and hard to attribute to a single cause — inevitably it is a mixture of a number of things,” said Terje Paulsen, vice president for loss prevention and risk assessment at Arendal, Norway-based Gard AS.

While hard data on the causes of marine accidents is difficult to find, “our experience would suggest that human error is a significant part of 70% to 80% of all accidents,” he said.


While accidents are mostly due to mistakes, they rarely are caused by a single person and should be viewed “in the context of the whole organization — both onboard and ashore.”

While the immediate cause of an accident may be the result of the actions of an individual, these frequently “are the result of factors in the local work environment which are a consequence of organizational factors,” he said.

Economic pressures may mean that some ship owners may have reduced their training budgets, said Rahul Khanna, a senior risk consultant at AGCS in London and a former ship's captain.

While many owners invest heavily — financially and in terms of time — in training of crews, some owners that are under financial pressure may not, Mr. Khanna said.

Much training is carried out on simulators, and this may not properly teach officers how to, for example, maneuver a ship in and out of a harbor, said Mr. Paulsen.

This can lead to inexperienced officers operating without the required expertise, he said.

The quality of officers and crew employed by a shipowner is a key factor for marine underwriters in assessing risk, said Marsh's Mr. Street.

Language differences between international crew members can lead to misunderstandings and result in mishaps, he said, so good training is essential.

The retention of crew members is another important factor in safety and for underwriters of marine risks, said AGCS's Mr. Khanna. “We like to see shipowners go the extra mile to keep their crew,” he said, and retention rates of about 80% to 90% are ideal.

Many shipowners have taken steps to retain crew members, for example, by offering rejoining bonuses or installing satellite TVs and improving the conditions for crew.

Economic and competitive pressures in the shipping market, and the demand from customers for fast turnaround times, can add to the stresses upon crews, experts say.


This also can mean cutbacks in maintenance, they say.

A lack of proper maintenance can lead to technical faults that can cause or contribute to accidents, according to Mr. Paulsen.

Shipowners must ensure that time pressures do not lead them to reduce the amount of maintenance carried out on vessels, said Mr. Street. He also added that shipowners should choose the repair yards that they use with care and seek expert advice when selecting those yards.

Another important issue that may have an effect on safety is the size of vessels, experts say.

Ships built now typically are much larger than in the past, said Mr. Khanna.

Safety must be taken into account in the design of such ships, he said, as issues such as the structural strength of the hull, the stability of the ship, the visibility afforded to crew and the way containers are stacked on board all can be important for minimizing accidents.

Crews also need training on these larger vessels, said Mr. Street.

According to marine safety experts, shipping companies seeking to improve safety should:

• Establish programs to train crew in electronic chart display and information systems.

• Increase focus on bridge resource management training and retraining, including realistic scenarios.

• Share lessons learned from incidents at crew conferences and while onboard ship to identify and discuss all factors that contributed to an incident, not just a single root cause.

• Establish a culture of organizational learning to share “near misses” and lessons from others.

• Marry the use of technology and human expertise.

• Ensure that crew are experienced in the type of vessel to which they are going to be deployed.

• Make sure you are confident about the risk management support you will receive from your classification society and flag carrier.

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