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Marine Transportation System (MTS) as a sociotechnical system


The maritime world has long kept human factors and engineering design or engineered systems in silos. The resulting Newtonian way of thinking continues to be valid with engineered design of ships, berths, ports, and navigable channels, following a reductionist approach to component reliability. However, human beings and groups (organizations – that use engineered design) are not governed by these well understood engineering principles. Human beings are better understood by using principles of social sciences / organization theory. Human beings are as much a part of the system as the engineered hardware or equipment. These human beings in the system are crew, regulators, terminals, service providers, vessel traffic systems, vessel management staff and classification societies, etc... Therefore, marine transportation system (MTS) is a sociotechnical system, influencing and being influenced by the components including humans, of this system.

Therefore, in order to reduce marine accidents and improve marine safety, it is necessary to consider the MTS as a complex sociotechnical system. It requires organizational resilience for dynamically adapting to changes. It requires system approaches to manage risks. This adaptability requires performance variability for safe outcomes similar to other High Reliability Organizations (HRO). Marine safety as an outcome does not come solely from component reliability but from the system’s total resilience to changes and organizational capability in three areas:

  • capability to recognize the boundaries of safe operation,

  • capability to steer back from them in a controlled manner, and

  • capability to recover from a loss of control if it does occur within defined time.


The Committee on Marine Safety and Human Factors (AW040) encourages research to address the following questions:

  1. What are the barriers that need to be removed for industry to achieve a shift to a sociotechnical approach to managing safety?

  2. What are the potential barriers in flag Administrations to adopt adequate oversight methods that provide safety assurance to the public at large?

  3. What are the processes needed to overcome these barriers?

  4. What are the observable, leading indicators to give assurance of resilient performance that can be used by the auditors of the safety management system?

  5. What are the various Safety Management System approaches to determine if there are other applicable models that may be adaptable in the maritime industry?


This research could enhance safety in the marine transportation system by broadening the focus of safety interventions to a comprehensive sociotechnical approach.

Sponsoring Committee:AW040, Marine Safety and Human Factors
Research Period:12 - 24 months
Research Priority:High
Date Posted:09/05/2019
Date Modified:09/06/2019
Index Terms:Human factors engineering, Design engineering, Marine safety, Social sciences, Organizational factors, Risk management,
Cosponsoring Committees: 
Marine Transportation
Safety and Human Factors

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