The last issue of the International Maritime Human Element Bulletin Alert! (the Nautical Institute/Lloyd’s Register Educational Trust project) considers how alarms might be made more manageable, how they can be configured to make them more selective, and whether the services of a specialist Electronics Officer is advantageous, in a ship bristling with electronic systems. The need for trust and dependability is considered, with the responsibility for reliable automation systems taking in owners and operators, planning and management, shipbuilders and systems integrators and suppliers.
The shipping industry might have had a reputation of being “labour intensive” but it depends upon a high degree of operation, for which there is no alternative, in an era where crew shortages are manifesting themselves. But the quality of the automation, in its “fitness for purpose” is the crucial component here. It is no help at all if it detaches the human element from the job in hand, or demotes people to become mere observers without the powers of proper decision making.
Bad automation, can lead to an accident, if it is not correctly set up, regularly monitored or properly maintained. Issue No 15 of Alert! suggests that while automation should make life easier for the seafarer, making operations safer, but if it is improperly configured, can make life much more dangerous. Distracting and confusing alarms, faulty hardware or software, poor training or systems which fail to blend the needs of the user into their functions can themselves contribute to accidents. So automation needs great forethought in terms of what it is required to do, and its specification so that the needs of the people aboard ship are pre-eminent.
While everyone homes in on operator “human error” after an accident, Alert! suggests that the human input into the design, manufacture or operation of a system may well have been a contributory factor. Often it is the failure to follow a systems engineering approach during the design process which sows the seeds of a maritime accident. Other important features consider the highly sophisticated LNG sector, the way in which human error might be mitigated in the development of automated shipboard systems. A major operator suggests the need for more “user-friendly” systems throughout the modern ship, with better logic, hugely improved user manuals and, perhaps, the IMO to examine the competencies of Electro-Technical Officers, people whose role is so greatly increasing aboard much modern tonnage.