Nearly 70 years ago a meeting was held at the Admiralty in Whitehall, London. It was the brainchild of Hywel Murrell, a chemist by education, but whose wartime work with the army and navy had made him acutely aware of the value of human factors research. In 1948, Murrell had been appointed head of the Naval Motion Study Unit, but he wanted to go further and bring together like-minded people engaged in related research in the fields of applied psychology, physiology and anatomy and movement study. That meeting led to the formation of the Ergonomics Research Society – today known as the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors – and a new word (although first coined by the Polish inventor Wojciech Jastrzębowski almost a century earlier) entered the English lexicon.
Human factors and ergonomics (HF&E) is such is an implicit part of everyday life that it often passes unnoticed, but given its founder’s background in naval research it’s perhaps surprising that the subject isn’t treated more seriously when it comes to ship design, at least where that concerns merchant vessels. Despite research that has repeatedly stressed the challenging environments and risks crew must deal with onboard modern ships, which have not been optimised to meet their needs, the ‘end-users’ of the design frequently find themselves subordinate to the requirements of other stakeholders, in particular the shipowner. Moreover, the value of HF&E is often questioned by the designers, who often treat it as an afterthought.
Is this a question of market forces or a more systemic educational failure? According to ergonomics expert Dr Steven Mallam, now a post-doctoral fellow with University College of Southeast Norway’s maritime sciences faculty, it’s a little of both. He explains: “It’s not the actual need for radically new or cutting edge knowledge, but rather the more application of knowledge we already possess.
“My rationale is that if you make human-centred design and ergonomics application easier and more intuitive for engineers to actually understand and use, through better, more usable methods and tools, then ultimately they will more readily adopt them in their work practices. If naval architects see the added value and are able to implement it into their design processes then they will hopefully utilise them in an effort to create a competitive edge in the marketplace.”
Mallam spent five years engaged in PhD research at Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg, exploring how ergonomics might be more effectively integrated into ship design; a project sponsored by the Swedish innovation fund Vinnova and the Swedish Mercantile Marine Foundation. One of the main focuses of his work has been how best to bridge the cultural differences between naval architects and seafarers, given their distinct educational backgrounds, work demands and technical language. Typically, says Mallam, ship designers have little to no understanding of the operations at sea and the demands on the end-users.
Moreover, regulatory support for HF&E tends to be weak, with a tendency more towards non-mandatory guidelines than specific requirements. Mallam observes: “There are actually quite a lot of guidance notes for design aspects of the ship – bridge, maritime equipment, although less so for the engine room and engine control room. However, the quality and actual value of these various guidelines is up for debate, and can arguably be heavily criticised.”
This lack of ergonomic understanding in the guidelines, according to Mallam, means the benefits of integration are rarely understood by shipowners. “They may look at it as unnecessary added costs in the upfront design and delivery of a new vessel – thinking that if it is not in the regulations then it can’t be that important. Of course, this is not accounting for lifecycle costs and the added value of ergonomics in design throughout a ship’s operation.”
The challenge therefore is prove the added value ergonomics can offer to traditional design processes, something Mallam does not think can be realised without first facilitating an attitude change. Interestingly however, his thoughts underwent something of a reversal during the course of his research.
He explains: “At the beginning I argued for a top-down approach for implementing ergonomics into ship design – to establish mandatory regulations from the IMO which required shipbuilders to follow specific criteria. However, by the end of my research I was much more interested in a bottom-up approach – developing engineering education and naval architecture design methods and tools that facilitate human-centred design.”
Rethinking ship development
It was this which led Mallam to become interested in the possibilities that might be afforded by knowledge transfer models. He concluded that the most effective means for promoting better communication among stakeholders was creating a platform that would allow for a more participatory design process, whereby the end user (i.e. the seafarer) could provide feedback directly to production engineers and designers. This inclusive environment would allow for problems to be identified early in the design process and optimal solutions developed that would allow for more effective ergonomic design.
While CAD, computer simulations and brainstorming sessions have all been explored as options in past research, there has been a tendency to focus on more general or critical issues such as mass evacuation and crew movement around the vessel. But Mallam believed closer analysis of GA ship sketches and layout drawings could allow for more effective HF&E integration when applied to specific crew work tasks.
The engine room in particular was identified as a problem area; typically there is a tendency to minimise the physical footprint of this space because it impacts upon the ship’s cargo-carrying capacity, but in doing so this also detracts from the crew’s ability to move freely and safely around what is a labour-intensive environment.
For a case study, Mallam and his co-researchers undertook detailed analysis of a ro-ro cargo ship (GT: 23,128, LOA: 191.8m, Breadth 26.4m, Draft: 7.8) over an eight-day period while it was operating in the Gulf of Bothnia, Baltic and Kattegat Seas. Field data collection took a four-pronged approach:
A holistic picture was built up of the work environment in pertaining to the engine rooms. This included detailed documentation of all equipment and a cataloguing of the basic physical characteristics of each identified area, including passageways and access points.
The next phase considered how accurately this real environment was reflected in the conceptual drawings of the original GA and the detailed machinery arrangement held by the shipping company.
To complement these and gain a more comprehensive perspective of the work environment the entire engine crew were interviewed and job shadowed throughout the eight-day period.
To build up a generalised summary of the activities performed by crew, as well as their frequency and importance, the researchers used an evaluation tool known as link analysis, which is more commonly found in interface design. Crew movements were mapped against the GA drawings, and compared against the onboard analysis and interviews with the crew to reveal the benefits and drawbacks of GA drawings.
It was found that while the GA captures the essential elements such as the hull structure, scantlings, clearance levels and emergency exits, an abundance of auxiliary equipment and installations will not be represented. What in the conceptual stage appeared to be adequate space becomes compromised, impeding access, restricting the true working area and creating numerous safety hazards. Of course, a naval architect should always make provision for structures in their design but very often these ‘placeholders’ on the drawing are not representative of the final construction. Consequently, Mallam and his colleagues discovered that the working environment is often actively modified.
“The workaround solutions are always quite interesting and sometimes very concerning from the personal and team safety perspective of the crew,” he explains. “The best example I have was the maintenance of a fuel oil (FO) separator… The cleaning area was well designed, had proper ventilation, drainage, protective screens, PPE, etc. but was not in close by. Because of the distance and obstacles in their way they chose to clean the dirty parts next to the FO separator, bent over small buckets of diesel oil (which was subsequently spilled all over the floor). Furthermore, the cleaning area was barely ever used because of its poor proximity to key equipment and machinery around the engine room.”
Other notable examples Mallam has encountered include cutting through engine room decks to help with the movement of equipment parts, or the hatch placement when the original becomes inaccessible after piping is installed. In another case, the crew created a makeshift locker room beside the engine room to store spare clothes and personal protective equipment because it was considered a far better option than the purpose-built locker room and showers three decks below.
It’s tempting perhaps to attribute the blame to poor design but Mallam is quick to stress that installation of equipment at the shipyard also determines the quality of the finalised work environment.
He explains: “The main purpose for a seaworthy ship is that the hull and overall structure is stable and safe. The details of the working environment and factors such as ergonomics are obviously of less concern than the overall safety of the structure at sea. Thus, it is easier for the industry, regulatory bodies, etc. to overlook these, by comparison, smaller issues. How shipyards coordinate throughout construction, and how ergonomics applications can be implemented on-site throughout construction at shipyards is a valuable pursuit.”
Through link analysis and interviews with the crew it became clear that while there are specific routines and maintenance schedules these will vary in frequency, meaning that no two days are exactly the same. However, it was possible to identify particular nodes where work either regularly took place or served as a ‘starting point’ for tasks elsewhere on the ship, such as the locker rooms and the engine control facilities, where work is discussed and delegated. The logistics of moving equipment and stores lifted onto the ship from shore-side and down to lower decks were also also carefully planned tasks requiring smooth, unimpeded transit between key nodes to optimise safety.
The crew’s movements between different nodes while conducting specific tasks corresponded with a ‘hub-and-spoke’ model across the ships ‘network’, with ‘hubs’ being the centralised areas for key activities and ‘spokes’ the movements between these locations.
Ergonomic Ship Evaluation Tool
The end goal was to develop a database for HF&E knowledge and specific end-user experience for each ship department that could be physically represented alongside the GA. However, one of the biggest challenges remained winning the support at a management level from the different stakeholders.
In order to demonstrate the benefits of integrating HF&E more clearly the team developed a software prototype, E-SET (Ergonomic Ship Evaluation Tool), a visual tool designed to facilitate participatory design processes and knowledge transfer between different stakeholders. E-SET takes the task and link analyses stored on the database and imports them into 2D and 3D ship models, visually mapping the crew movements required for task execution. As with web mapping services, output metrics make it possible to identify ‘high-traffic’ areas and logistical bottle-necks on the vessel, the theory being that this information would reveal to designers those areas of the ship where obstructions (such as auxiliary equipment and piping) should be kept to a minimum.
A trial of E-SET, which can be simply installed on a standard 64-bit Windows laptop, was conducted involving final year students from Chalmers University’s Naval Architecture and Ocean Engineering Master’s program. As part of the trial, the students also attended a short (four hour) ergonomics workshop, which was developed to engage them in HF&E considerations ahead of the final year projects and the value of end user experience in the design process. The overall impression proved favourable, with participants scoring E-SET highly for usability and that the 3D conceptualisation of the ship drawing increased understanding of the work environment.
However, doubts were expressed when it came to the value of integrating E-SET and ergonomics methods into actual ship design projects, with many feeling that while it might be a ‘nice thing to do’ it undermined their focus and purpose as naval architects, namely to work to pre-set goals efficiently and effectively. In other words, even graduate students with little real-world experience of engineering held negative impressions about ergonomics.
For now at least E-SET remains a work in progress but with an eye towards wider application. Mallam says: “We continue to use it as a teaching tool within the engineering curriculum and naval architect education to demonstrate end-user demands and practical human-centred design methods in action. I would like to see the functions of E-SET developed further from a commercial perspective. The philosophy and functions of E-SET have a lot of potential to add value to the traditionally engineering-focused ship design process. To have E-SET developed and commercialised as either a stand-alone product or integrated into traditional naval architecture design software is the next phase.”
Unsurprisingly then, one of Mallam’s principal recommendations to stakeholders is that ergonomics should be incorporated into the formal curricula of undergraduate and postgraduate engineering programs. He argues in his doctoral thesis: “Ergonomics, like other engineering skills, requires a foundation of knowledge and understanding for future generations of engineers and designers to build upon. Without formalised ergonomics education within engineering curricula ergonomics will continue to be underutilised and misunderstood.”
IMO also has an important role to play in formalising ergonomics within international shipping. Mallam points to the growing disconnect which has emerged between seafarer competency standards such as the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) and ship design criteria and ship design criteria such as SOLAS. In this regard, he believes the development towards mandatory goal-based standards could help guide shipbuilding in improving the quality of work environments.
He adds that all stakeholders, but particularly naval architects, should spend an extended period of time onboard a ship, whether during their education or periodically throughout their career for professional development. This would provide them with context of the demands the end-user will experience when their design is put into practice.
Further, Mallam believes industry stakeholders need to be more receptive to undertaking pilot studies (such as E-SET) investigating ergonomics and participatory practices in design. He concedes however that one of the stumbling blocks remains that while studies such as his point to theoretical benefits the empirical evidence is harder to measure:
“One of my favourite quotes regarding ergonomics is from a former president of our professional association, who said ‘good ergonomics is good economics’, meaning that good ergonomics is not only appropriately applied scientific knowledge, but cost effective and practical… This is also a driving force behind how and why E-SET was developed with the particular functions and philosophy that it has.
“There has been very little quantitative data on the economics of ergonomics in the shipping domain. This is for several reasons, one being the general lack of research in the area as a whole. I can take one passage from my PhD thesis, which sums up my thoughts on the issue:
“It is imperative for ergonomics applications to demonstrate tangible results and justify an organisation’s investment. Initial ergonomics interventions should consider the ‘low hanging fruit’ by addressing obvious and easily fixed design deficiencies to display short term results, and ultimately gain creditability with management and other stakeholders. This result-oriented approach builds relationships and trust that can be leveraged into longer term, more intensive ergonomics applications.”