TALKING POINT: Addressing the human element: Making a difference by improving communication at all levels in maritime companies

March 23, 2022
Yuri Stulyi Genadievitch entry 1
© Yuri Stulyi Genadievitch

Each month, we are sharing a discussion piece written by a member of the maritime industry offering a unique or interesting perspective on an aspect of seafarers’ welfare. You can join the conversation around this month’s Talking Point on our social media channels – Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

This month, Talking Point guest author Teresa Lalinde suggests that maritime safety and crew wellbeing could be enhanced by improving communication at all levels.

Teresa Lalinde is a multilingual translator who later specialised in international trade and logistics. Following her hands-on experience in international voyages on tall ships, she grew interested in finding solutions to the communication problems of multicultural crews. Her focus fell on the human side of shipping, leading to research on the Human Element amidst the pandemic during her Master’s Degree in Maritime Business Management and Law.

Maritime safety statistics have long hinted at human error as the main cause of casualties at sea, with figures ranging from 60 to 90%1 of the cases. Coincidentally (or not), this human side around which such big mistakes allegedly take place on board ships has been recklessly disregarded in the past. Unsurprisingly, nowadays there is still a severe lack of information, and consequently understanding, of what lies behind the very broad category of ‘human error’ so frequently stated in accident investigation reports and the news.

Admittedly, the task is quite challenging. It continues to be easier to identify and sort out a deficiency related to the fire control system, or the maintenance of a piece of machinery or equipment, than spotting or addressing any kind of trouble around human interactions, such as: leadership styles and crew communication, the multicultural and multilingual nature of the workforce, and the coordination effort to manage the whole range of operations in and around shipping.

The human element is complicated, but it all boils down to the question of: how to deal with ‘humans and their relationships’ considering the complexities of the maritime industry?

A dehumanised model of shipping sustained through the years

Following the MS Herald of Free Enterprise disaster (1987), the International Maritime Organization (IMO) designed the International Safety Management (ISM) Code, which originally sought to introduce the concept of a ‘safety culture’ to be shared by all employees, across all hierarchical levels of the maritime organisation. Ideally, this should have helped shift the blame focus away from the operational levels (seafarers) by extending accountability to the managers making decisions and giving commands from ashore. Additionally, a regulatory framework was set through the introduction of the code into the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), making it mandatory since 2002 for all companies operating ships in international commercial voyages.

So now, 20 years and a world pandemic after the ISM Code’s entry into force, the picture is still unclear, the advances are contested and the derived ‘safety clutter’ seems to keep growing like a giant, burning out crews and devouring every bit of humanity in its way…

So can we really make a difference in the maritime human domain?

Efficiency does not necessarily require large-scale projects. There are low-investment, high-return strategies that mainly demand critical thinking and planning, but more importantly, a real willingness of the company to care for their people. Thus, safety, which remains a primary concern in maritime, could well hold the key to many advances in the human element arena. Safety culture could be a very interesting and powerful umbrella for introducing impactful actions in companies, and as accident investigation science has proven, there is a huge potential to improve starting from the very basic foundations of communication.

Yet as with every maritime matter, communication is also multi-layered, multilingual, multicultural, diverse and collaborative. Shipboard communication can be broken down as follows:

  • on-board: by the crew in their relationships, both at work and during rest hours. As social beings, sharing a common language in which crew members feel comfortable to express themselves is vital not only for operational and safety reasons, but also to preserve mental health and wellbeing;
  • ship-to-ship: usually radio comms;
  • ship-to-shore: sharing information with coastal stations, vessel traffic services (VTS) or Search and Rescue (SAR); very importantly, communicating with the office or management ashore.

With so many sides to it, the consequences of inefficient communication are almost infinite and can be devastating. Moreover, there are all kinds of people interacting here: crews; office personnel; management; support services such as tugboats, pilots, VTS personnel, SAR services and authorities… How can communication be taught and improved at all levels?

© Alan Marwick

Making things happen

Beyond traditional safety-related concerns such as ship design or stability, there is so much more that companies can do to improve performance, motivation and a sense of belonging among crew.

For instance, companies could start by trying to increase their communication capabilities by:

  • Setting the bar higher regarding training standards. The Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping (STCW) Code’s all too basic and vague requirements are not enough. Such an approach across the whole industry would help promote the English language as a true lingua franca (specific levels of command could be demanded per rank/service, if deemed necessary); rather than sticking any longer to the outdated Standard Marine Communication Phrases prescribed by the IMO (SMCP, 2001). This approach never considered the most human side of life on board: seafarers evidently need to liaise with other crew members, but they also need to interact in non-work-related situations, simply because they happen to live together for months on a ship. Social relations are natural and very necessary; let’s make them happen.
  • Designing and delivering quality in-house training with a clear, sustained focus on so-called ‘soft skills’ like teamwork and leadership. Regarding specialisation, an extra effort could be made to help seafarers develop language skills according to their positions. For example, the engine-room terminology and language needs while at work certainly differ from those of the bridge department, but for safety reasons it is still vital for all of them to be aware of both the procedures and the language used in case of an emergency at sea, enabling a sharp and coordinated team response. A foreign language can make the situation more challenging if one needs to make use of ship-to-ship or ship-to-shore communications, more so if this is required of the engine room staff, for example, who might not be so familiar with many bridge procedures. Common sense says this is demanding too much from a human being in distress.
  • Valuing multiculturalism in crew/team composition planning and harnessing it to build trust, understanding and wellbeing among teams.
  • Most importantly, setting good examples of thoughtful, wise leadership through the decisions and communications made by the company’s own management.

Nothing is either black or white, and even the same actions will have different results from case to case, but what is certain in the 21st century following a world pandemic is that shipping cannot afford to ignore its crews and their needs any longer. The maritime industry could benefit greatly from cross-disciplinary inputs, so we should all put our heads together and draw on our own understanding of what it is to be human to improve shipping and the lives of the heroes that make it happen!

1Sánchez-Beaskoetxea, J., Basterretxea-Iribar, I., Sotés, I., & Machado, M. de las M. M. (2021). Human error in marine accidents: Is the crew normally to blame? Maritime Transport Research, 2, 100016.

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