What’s with “the human element”?

by | May 4, 2012 | Latest Post | 6 comments

There’s no escaping the catchword “the human element” in shipping. It’s become as ubiquitous as “sustainable shipping” – and necessarily so. Despite the advances in technology, maritime accidents continue to take a heavy toll on life and limb, not to speak of the environment. Time to shift the focus to “the human element” in the man-machine equation. Still and all, I don’t feel comfortable with the phrase and the reason has nothing to do with the usefulness of it.

Then IMO Secretary-General W.A. O’Neil summed it up well on 29th June 2001. Speaking at the Biennial Symposium of the Seafarers International Research Centre in Cardiff, he said: “People remain a basic component with all their strengths and weaknesses which can both cause a disaster or prevent it. Our task is to sort out the issues and to build on the strengths and correct the weaknesses. If, as is frequently stated, all marine casualties and incidents involve human factors in one way or another, then our starting point is quite clear.”

Who can argue with that? My objection to the term “the human element” has to do with sentiment: it sounds too cold and reminds me of the periodic table of elements invented by the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev. No doubt, it has practical value. But in an industry where seafarers are often treated as commodities, the phrase is unfortunate. I wonder how seafarers themselves feel about being called “the human element”. I remember the words of Shylock, the merchant Jew, in Shakespeare’s immortal play, The Merchant of Venice:

I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, do we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.

But how many care about sentiment in the world of maritime business?

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