Here be monsters: Investigating sociotechnical interaction in safety-critical work in the maritime domain.
Licentiate thesis, 2016
Maritime Pilots and Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) operators work to improve the safety of navigation of seagoing vessels. As in many other safety-critical domains, work is increasingly characterised by the integration and dissemination of information between humans and technology, across disciplines and over multiple geographical locations. Technological advancements such as e-navigation facilitate increased monitoring and control from shore and create new possibilities to provide additional assistance on board vessels. E-navigation has thus a direct impact on navigational assistance as performed by pilots and VTS operators.
This thesis views navigational assistance as a case of sociotechnical work in a safety-critical domain. It attempts to understand how work is performed and how it contributes to maritime safety by starting from empirical observation and a Resilience Engineering focus on everyday operations. Interviews, focus groups and field observations on board vessels and in VTS centres were conducted and analysed using an iterative approach, inspired by the principles of grounded theory and the Functional Resonance Analysis Method (FRAM) and informed by the traditions of Workplace Studies, Science and Technology Studies and Activity Theory. A generic FRAM model of navigational assistance was developed to describe the practice of everyday work and how the conditions which affect its performance may vary. A scenario and case study were also analysed and modelled to illustrate how safety may manifest itself in typical and actual events.
Successful assistance was found to be dependent on: (i) the use of local knowledge, preparation and foresight to integrate information from a wide range of sources, and; (ii) communication and trust between the pilot, VTS operator, and the master and crew of the vessel, to provide timely assistance to vessels. FRAM was found to be a valuable tool for describing sociotechnical work, but was enriched by borrowing from the work studies traditions, with their strong grounding in empirical observations and themes of 'making work visible', symmetry between human/non-human, and work as activity. This approach indicated that bringing ideas from different traditions together to understand a real work practice may bring us closer to describing 'work as done', and its contribution to safe everyday operations.
This thesis concludes that safety is an emergent property of sociotechnical work, which manifests itself through the interaction between humans and other actors in the context in which work is performed. The configuration of a sociotechnical system is not necessarily pre-defined, but is dependent on the human, technological, organisational and natural factors which affect the performance of work. It is inherently uncertain, variable and must adapt to circumstances. In order to inform the design of new systems or evaluate the impact of new technologies, one should therefore take account of the factors which affect how work is normally performed, and also how it is actually performed in specific circumstances to enable safe operations.
Functional Resonance Analysis Method (FRAM)
Vessel Traffic Services (VTS)