Catching up with the vital work of the Human Element Working Group

Amid the innovation and uncertainty of new technologies, fuels and industry practices, the work of IMarEST’s Human Element Working Group (HEWG) has never been more relevant. We catch up with them on their recent projects and initiatives.

The gradual creep of automation may have been chipping away at crew numbers but the industry focus on the Human Element – anything that influences the interaction between a human and any other human, system or machine aboard ship – has never been more acute. 

The stresses of the Covid-19 years, when hundreds of thousands of seafarers were stuck at sea, highlighted the poor mental health and working conditions aboard ships, while innovative technologies – from automation to alternative fuels – have created new risks in the human-ship dynamic.  

IMarEST’s Human Element Working Group (HEWG) has a mission to improve safety and operational efficiency and reduce the risk of operational incidents by educating IMarEST’s members and the wider maritime community of the significance of the human element. While it’s widely acknowledged that human error can account for around three-quarters or more of marine accidents and marine liability claims, this work isn’t about finding someone to blame, but rather to better understand the wider systemic, technical and operational issues that may have contributed to that error so future accidents can be avoided.  

Despite the importance of this work, only around 500 of IMarEST’s worldwide membership of 18,000 are part of the HEWG. “Everyone should really be part of this because it impacts everyone working in the maritime sector,” says Professor Malek Pourzanjani, head of Naval education at the Marine Learning Alliance and co-chair of the HEWG committee. “We’re always looking for people to get involved.” 

After having worked on the Human Elements Checklist with the Human Element Industry Group, which is now with the IMO for approval, the HEWG plans a series of events for the remainder of 2023. These will be on a range of subjects, including the Human Element Checklist and the transition from manned ships to autonomous ships.  

Professor Pourzanjani pointed out that increased automation doesn’t necessarily remove the human element from the ship. “Smaller crews mean seafarers are more isolated, and this can impact their mental wellbeing and performance,” he says. “And the introduction of new technologies can introduce new risks, particularly if people aren’t given proper training in how to use them.” 

The same goes for the rise of new fuels to reduce shipping’s carbon footprint. But these alternative fuels, such as ammonia and methanol, are not benign substances and crew must be given careful training in their handling and storage. “Ship owners are busy building ships or converting vessels to run on ammonia or methanol but this needs to be introduced alongside proper training,” says Professor Pourzanjani. 

Previous meetings have included presentation by Donal Burke (an 81-year-old IMarEST member, who proves you are never too old to contribute to the learning and education of the sector) on his research into the mechanisms by which oxygen depletion takes in place in enclosed spaces and adjacent compartments. The conclusions, described by the HEWG as “very important”, will now be shared more widely across the industry. 

Indeed, sharing vital information about emerging risks and new research is a vital part of the HEWG’s remit. Its members include casualty investigators and P&I club members, who routinely look at accidents as they happen to draw and share lessons. HEWG co-chair Will Tutton is an Inspector with the UK’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch.  

In the past, too often the human element has been an after-thought in the industry’s thinking. The role of the HEWG is to make sure the role of the human is front and centre, to reduce the risk of error and to ensure working conditions are safe and seafarer wellbeing is enhanced. After all, these are vitally important jobs, responsible for assets worth millions of dollars, operating in some of the most challenging environments in the world.  

Centring the human element and giving it the focus it deserves is a benefit to society as a whole – why not get involved today


Amy McLellan is a journalist and author. She was previously editor of Energy Day. Twitter  @AmyMcLellan2