This month, Nippin Anand, principal specialist in safety management, explores the human factors that make or break safety at sea.
For a long time, I have wondered why pilots on some of the world’s busiest waterways communicate for so long on their radios and mobile phones. How much of their conversation relates to the core duties of negotiating with authorities and manoeuvring a vessel?
One pilot answered my question while sailing with a junior officer who understood his native language. Transiting through a canal, the chief officer instructed the junior officer not to let the pilot know about his unique linguistic skills. And so, this undercover officer kept to himself, quietly observing the pilot who commenced navigation through the waterways.
Once onboard, the pilot exchanged information with the master in compliance with the Bridge Procedures Guide. And then he entered multi-tasking mode. On the one hand, he was speaking on the phone in his local language and on the other hand he was communicating with the bridge team in English.
For the next few hours, the pilot spoke about his daughter, who was getting married, discussing her wedding arrangements in considerable detail on the phone while simultaneously directing helm orders to an able seaman whose ability to communicate was assessed based on the Maritime English (Marlins) test. All the while the 9,000 TEU container vessel was cruising at nine knots with about 50 metres clearance on either side of the channel.
Next, it was time for changeover of pilots. Heading and speed were discussed as part of the handover before the outgoing pilot proceeded down the gangway. Just before the pilot disembarked, the junior officer offered him a goodbye. “Mr. Pilot”, he said, “I wish you well for your daughter’s wedding.” The pilot left in a state of shock.
The maritime industry has been trying hard to understand why ships go aground and collide with a competent crew and an experienced pilot onboard. The ‘root cause’, if there is one, almost always comes down to situational awareness, complacency and over-reliance on the ‘unreliable’ mariner. The solution to the problem? Training and more training.
Navigation audits and safety inspections take this even further, sifting through technical competencies to the last grain of sand to ensure that the details of codes and conventions are complied with and collision regulations are memorised. The problem on the bridge is with people not being assertive and careful, or simply not having enough knowledge.
But we fail to ponder a simple question: What is it that motivates people to fulfil their obligations as professionals? In my own PhD thesis, I came across a young officer who found ‘thrill and excitement’ in getting close to other ships during his night shift. Of course, this is an extreme example, but it exposes the tensions in an entire industry that makes little attempt to understand its problems and propose solutions.
Political crises, an ageing workforce, repetitive work, difficulties in attracting young recruits and limited career progression opportunities are bound to influence a pilot’s motivation and interaction with a crew. Likewise, a shortage of experienced navigators at competitive rates — combined with the influence of new navigation technologies and half-baked regulations and training standards — can turn a highly-skilled profession into a ‘plug and play’ operation.
How often do we consider the individual motivations, expectations and goals of a team of professionals performing critical operations in designing training courses? Should this bother us at all? Perhaps yes, because failing to consider these factors may make capital-intensive efforts counterproductive.
Disclaimer — The views expressed in this article may not be the views of the organisation that the author represents.