The knowledge of what is happening and the ability to assess its impact on the future of courses of actions has a critical safety relevance in maritime operations. In this first of a two-part story, SCT’s Mario Pierobon reviews situation awareness’s role in preventing human error, and how it is fostered by authentic leadership.

The Human Element

According to Bjørn Sætrevik and Sigurd W. Hystad in a 2016 academic article entitled ‘Situation awareness as a determinant for unsafe actions and subjective risk assessment on offshore attendant vessels’[i], situation awareness (SA) is considered a clear indicator of workplace safety because an inaccurate SA is most likely to result in operator error.

Indeed, the importance of situation awareness is strictly associated to preventing human error. According to the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency in a Marine Guidance Note (MGN) document entitled ‘Human element guidance - part 2’ [MGN 520 (M)][ii] a consistent factor in nearly all accidents, incidents, and errors is the human factor, i.e., the ability of people to handle the complexity, difficulty, stress, and workload of everyday tasks effectively and safely, not only in emergency situations but also in routine operations.

Most accidents, incidents and mistakes could be avoided if people understood, acted, and behaved differently. This applies not only to seafarers, to whom accidents often occur, but also to people at all levels and positions in the wider maritime system, including shipowners, operators and managers, and other leaders in the shipping and maritime industries whose actions have a significant impact and may affect outcomes that are distant in space and time, MGN 520 (M) affirms.

The “Deadly Dozen”

According to MGN 520 (M), there are twelve most common situations that affect or act as precursors to human error, leading to accidents or incidents. It is not an exhaustive list of accidents and incident symptoms, there are literally hundreds of possible symptoms. “However, experience shows that the Deadly Dozen provides a useful and pragmatic introduction to understanding aspects of human error in organisations and workplaces and ship owners, ship operators and managers, masters, officers and crews are encouraged to become familiar with its principles and practices”, MGN 520 (M) says.

Multiple versions exist of the list of the top twelve people related factors, and they almost invariably include situation awareness, which MGN 520 (M) defines as the understanding what is happening and assessing its impact on the voyage now and in the future.

Alerting in relation to situation awareness is about raising concerns on actions, situations or behaviour to the attention of others in a timely, positive and effective way; it can reduce assumptions, complacency and group-think and it can counteract distractions and slips of memory, according to MGN 520 (M).

Authentic Leadership

Situation awareness can be effectively fostered by good leadership, the lack of which – it should be observed – is another typical deadly dozen factor. According to William L. Gardner, Bruce J. Avolio, Fred Luthans, Douglas R. May, Fred Walumbwa in a 2005 paper entitled ‘Can you see the real me? A self-based model of authentic leader and follower development’[iii] a captain’s leadership can create an atmosphere of safety awareness and motivate operators to take safety seriously. The concept of authentic leadership describes a relationship characterised by transparency/openness/trust, guidance toward worthy objectives, and an emphasis on follower development.

More authentic leaders foster an organizational climate focussed on developing strengths and characterised by inclusiveness and commitment. Therefore, in a safety critical industry, more authentic leaders should be expected to create an atmosphere where safety is the priority, Gardner et al affirm.

Summing Up

In this first of two parts on the situation awareness of maritime crews we have reviewed situation awareness as a critical aspect of maritime safety, its role in preventing human error, and how situation awareness is fostered by authentic leadership. In the next part, we shall consider situation awareness as a contributory factor to safety events and as a system property, as well as the role of modern technology to improve situation awareness in the maritime sector.


[i] Bjørn Sætrevik and Sigurd W. Hystad, ‘Situation awareness as a determinant for unsafe actions and subjective risk assessment on offshore attendant vessels’, December 2016 Elsevier Inc.
[ii] Marine guidance note (MGN) 520 in a part entitled ‘Human element guidance’.
[iii] Gardner, W.L., Avolio, B.J., Luthans, F., May, D.R., Walumbwa, F., 2005. “Can you see the real me?” A self-based model of authentic leader and follower development. The leadership quarterly 16, 343-372.