Human Element vs. Human Factors

Human Element vs. Human Factors

Human Element vs. Human Factors: A Critical Distinction for Maritime Safety. 

Human Element' and 'Human Factors' are not just buzzwords in maritime discourse. They are vital concepts that profoundly influence safety.

Human Element

Human Element is a term coined by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in the late 1990s to describe human involvement in ship operations and includes seafarers' skills, education, and training.

It is a core aspect of the IMO’s strategic plan for 2018-2023, illustrating the Organisation’s efforts to improve training standards. Resolution A.1130(30) focuses on upskilling seafarers to adapt to modern maritime technologies and operations demands. 

Despite the clear importance of Human Element, a clear and consistent definition remains elusive, both in IMO documents and broader maritime literature, which often leaves its interpretation open to various stakeholders within the industry. 

The Nautical Institute, in an article dated 18th September 2013, described Human Element as “a generic term to describe what makes humans behave the way they do and the consequences that result.”  While even this article did not clearly define what Human Element is, it referenced a research project by UK MCA and this 120 page document published by the MCA.  

This 120-page document lists in its bibliography authors who find regular mention in the current safety discourse: Hollnagel, Woods, Dekker, Hofstede, Gary Klein, Milgram, and Amalberti. This may be the document closest to what Human Factors is. While largely a ‘progressive’ document, here again, there is an expectation to develop "human properties". While there is an acceptance in this document the Human Element is 'misnamed', there is again no clear definition of What is the Human Element? even in the section by that name. 

The closest our industry has come to a recognition that Human Element is different from Human Factors is in The Human Factors approach 2020 where the OCIMF recognises that ‘Human Element’ is focused on changing the person and is a phrase that may not be recognised outside the maritime industry. Instead, it believes that Human Factors, used across the oil and gas, aviation, nuclear, space and military, is the correct term to be used.

Human Factors” has become a buzzword in our industry since OCIMF introduced the SIRE 2.0 program in 2020. 

Human Factors 

Unlike Human Element, Human Factors is a recognised field across various industries, including oil and gas, aviation, and nuclear sectors. This discipline focuses on designing systems and work environments that accommodate human limitations and enhance human performance. Human Factors is not about altering human attributes but about shaping the work environment to optimize conditions at work allowing humans to perform as best as they can; making it easier for them to do the right thing; and making it possible for them to recover from mistakes and prevent it from becoming an accident. The principles of Human Factors involve an understanding of human behaviour, ergonomics, and system design to prevent errors before they occur.

Human Factors are a field in Europe, that Americans call Ergonomics. Safety-critical industries like Aviation, Nuclear, Healthcare, Railways, and even Oil and gas recognise human factors/ergonomics as having a significant impact on improving work conditions and reducing the chances of incidents. 


A person at the center of various skills and qualities describing Human element and Human factor


Maritime Implementations and Challenges

In the maritime industry, applying Human Factors is crucial yet challenging. For instance, retrofitting ships with new technologies often overlooks the Human-Machine Interface, significantly impacting crew workload; and, thereby safety. 

As an industry, we have continuously embraced new technologies. These have sometimes made some ranks redundant, like what the GMDSS and Computers did to Radio Officers and Pursers. Then, we adapted technologies like ECDIS that made the work of navigating officers easier. But neither of these technologies really may have looked at Human Factors as is evident from our struggles to operate the GMDSS equipment, often sending out false alerts. Or from the challenges of figuring out all the functions of an ECDIS on a dark wheelhouse. 

Our industry has most ambitiously embraced technologies to reduce the impact of our operations on the environment. Our ships were installed with BWTS, EGCS and technologies to use fuels with lower carbon footprint, sometimes blending fuels and increasing the risk of failures and bringing on additional unintended consequences. If you worked on ships with these technologies, they wouldn’t have been easy to operate or troubleshoot. This again demonstrates that Human Factors may not have been a big consideration in the design of this equipment. 

Implementing Human Factors in the maritime sector is not straightforward. 

Consideration of Human Factors is crucial during design. But as an industry, we have been handed down technologies without much thought to how the crew will operate and manage them, with the same (or lower) number of crew to operate them. 

The industry regulators don’t seem to have much say in the final design of equipment. The approval of these designs within the stated standards is then outsourced to Classification Societies, whose business depends on the number of ships they have, which in turn depends on the ship owners' equation with the classification societies. Within this incestuous relationship driven by economics and minimum standards, new technologies are introduced, often with little thought to how the sharp end operator will operate this machinery. The focus is on meeting the minimum required standard. So, in effect, Human Factors is tossed out of the window. 

With the industry unable to do much (or not wanting to do much) about how the sharp-end operator uses the equipment, it then focuses on the Human Element: setting exacting training standards for the seafarers so that they can step up to understand and operate these new pieces of equipment. 


A professional girl at the center of the shipping industry representing the significance of Human element and Human factor in maritime industry


The Way Forward

To genuinely advance Human Factors in maritime safety, it is imperative for each of us, as maritime industry professionals, safety experts, and stakeholders, to establish a shared understanding and clear definitions. Misconceptions that conflate Human Factors with Human Element must be corrected. Human Factors is about creating conditions to help people work better. Human Element is about improving the person by better training.  Human Factor is about creating robust systems to account for human error without relying solely on perfect human performance. Human Element is about upskilling humans and asking them not to make mistakes. 

The industry must strive for designs and operational practices that acknowledge human capabilities and limitations, integrating these considerations from the initial stages of ship design to daily operations. This approach not only enhances safety but also improves the overall well-being of the crew.

While we may not influence the design, we could incorporate the Five Principles of Human and Organizational Performance. This is a simplified distillation of the essence of the nature of humans, acknowledging their capability and recognising their fallibility. The industry should strive for designs and operational practices that acknowledge human capabilities and limitations from the initial stages of ship design to daily operations. While training has its hallowed place, if we continue to use Human Element and Human Factors interchangeably, we may lose out on improving conditions at work. Instead, we would continue to focus on training people. 

If we design better rather than simply exhort human beings to become God—which is what they will be when they are always (situationally) aware, mindful, and stop making mistakes—there is a better chance of lowering mistakes and recovering from them. 

Human Factors is not Human Element.  

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Capt. Abhijith Balakrishnan

Abhijith's maritime career began in 1995 as a cadet and extended until 2012 when he transitioned to a role in Maritime Education and Training (MET) after having been in command of VLCCs. Following this, he took on an insurance-related position, managing Lloyd’s agency, loss adjustment, P&I correspondence, and various surveys. 

Currently, he is employed by a leading tanker management company.

Abhijith is deeply passionate about understanding what influences work, auditing and investigation processes. He actively keeps up with the latest developments in Human Factors and Safety Science. He believes that language shapes our realities: words make the world! 

He has completed an ICF-certified Associate Coach certification program and is available for coaching sessions.

Recently, he completed a Master's program in Human Factors and Systems Safety from Lund University, Sweden. 

He is open to opportunities for writing and public speaking engagements. 

He has a Newsletter “Even Keel” on LinkedIn where he writes occasionally. He previously hosted a podcast available on popular Podcast streaming platforms by the same name : Even Keel

He is eager to engage with anyone who has read what he writes, especially with those who hold a different perspective. 

He can be reached at

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