HOP! Navigating the Waters of Human Error: People Make Mistakes

The maritime industry, often romanticized for its adventures and vast open seas, is a realm where human error can lead to catastrophic consequences. While the industry has made significant strides in adopting advanced technologies and implementing robust safety protocols, human mistakes remain an ever-present challenge. In this blog post, we’ll explore the concept of human errors in the maritime industry and delve into the “People Make Mistakes” principle, an essential part of Human and Organizational Performance (HOP).

Navigating the Waters of Human Error

Maritime operations, whether it’s navigating a cargo ship through a busy port or conducting maintenance tasks on a drilling rig, require meticulous precision. However, the harsh environmental conditions, long working hours, and the inherently complex nature of maritime activities make errors an inherent risk.

  1. The Reality of Human Errors in Maritime Operations

Despite rigorous training and standardized procedures, maritime professionals are still prone to making mistakes. These errors can manifest in various forms, such as:

  • Navigation Mistakes:

    Misjudging distances, not properly interpreting navigational aids, or simply overlooking critical information on charts can lead to groundings and collisions.

  • Communication Errors:

    Misunderstandings in communication, especially in multilingual crews, can cause misinterpretations of orders, which may result in accidents.

  • Fatigue-Related Errors:

    Long working hours and the demanding nature of maritime work can lead to fatigue-related mistakes that affect decision-making and reaction times.

  • Technical Failures:

    Mistakes while operating or maintaining equipment can lead to machinery breakdowns or even environmental disasters.

  1. The “People Make Mistakes” Principle

Human and Organizational Performance (HOP) principles are a set of concepts and practices aimed at understanding and mitigating human errors in high-risk industries, including the maritime sector. One of the foundational principles is “People Make Mistakes,” which recognizes that humans are fallible, and errors are inevitable.

The HOP approach emphasizes a shift from a traditional, blame-centric culture to a more proactive one that seeks to understand the deeper causes of human errors. This approach fosters a culture of continuous improvement and acknowledges that, while humans make mistakes, it is the organization’s responsibility to reduce the likelihood and impact of these errors.

Understanding the “Swiss Cheese Model”

The “Swiss Cheese Model” is often used in the HOP framework to illustrate how errors occur. Imagine each layer of Swiss cheese as a defense or safety barrier. In a perfect scenario, when these layers align perfectly, they prevent an error from reaching its final consequence. However, as in real life, there are often holes in the cheese layers, allowing errors to pass through. When multiple holes align, a disaster occurs.

In the maritime industry, these layers could represent safety procedures, training, equipment reliability, and human performance. Even when individual sailors are highly skilled, the presence of holes in any of these layers can still lead to accidents.

Human Error: An Opportunity for Learning

The HOP approach argues that rather than scapegoating individuals for their errors, it is more productive to view human mistakes as opportunities for learning and system improvement. Let’s explore some key aspects of the HOP “People Make Mistakes” principle and how they can be applied to the maritime industry:

  1. Root Cause Analysis: HOP encourages organizations to investigate the root causes of errors rather than stopping at blaming individuals. By identifying the deeper factors that contributed to a mistake, organizations can implement systemic changes to prevent recurrence.
  2. Reporting and Learning Culture: Creating a culture where personnel feel safe reporting errors is essential. If errors are concealed out of fear of repercussions, it becomes impossible to learn from them. In the maritime industry, implementing a just culture that balances accountability with learning is crucial.
  3. Training and Competency: Recognizing that humans make mistakes, the HOP approach emphasizes continuous training and competence development. Ensuring that maritime professionals are well-prepared and equipped to handle complex situations reduces the likelihood of errors.
  4. Automation and Technology: The maritime industry is increasingly integrating automation and technology to minimize the impact of human error. From advanced navigation systems to automated cargo handling, technology plays a pivotal role in error prevention.

Case Studies: Learning from Mistakes

To illustrate the practical application of the “People Make Mistakes” principle, let’s take a look at two real-world maritime incidents and how they can provide valuable insights.

  1. Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (1989): This catastrophic environmental disaster was primarily attributed to human errors, including the captain’s fatigue and poor communication among the crew. The incident led to the implementation of rigorous safety regulations, emphasizing the importance of crew rest and clear communication, exemplifying the learning opportunities that emerge from mistakes.
  2. Costa Concordia Shipwreck (2012): The Costa Concordia grounding off the coast of Italy was a result of multiple human errors, including a risky maneuver and the captain’s lack of judgment. The incident served as a catalyst for the maritime industry to reevaluate the roles and responsibilities of crew members, particularly during emergencies, highlighting the importance of training and leadership in crisis situations.


The maritime industry, like many other high-risk sectors, is not immune to human errors. However, the adoption of Human and Organizational Performance (HOP) principles, particularly the “People Make Mistakes” principle, has paved the way for a more proactive and safety-focused culture. By acknowledging that humans are fallible and that errors will occur, organizations can shift their focus towards understanding the root causes of errors, promoting a reporting and learning culture, and continually improving training and technology.

In the maritime industry, as in any other, learning from mistakes is not only a responsibility but also an opportunity to enhance safety, protect the environment, and safeguard human lives. By embracing the “People Make Mistakes” principle, the maritime industry can chart a safer and more secure course for the future, ensuring that the vast and beautiful open seas remain a place of adventure, but one where human errors are minimized and learned from.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.