Following Phase 1 of the study on human factors root causes of accidents in inland navigation, a conclusion was reached that human factors account for about 70-80% of these incidents. The European inland shipping industry organizations, united in the European IWT Platform, have commissioned research agency Intergo to conduct a Phase 2 of the study for more in-depth examination. IVR and the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management (IenW) were also involved in the study. The results and recommendations of the Phase 2a have now been published.

The number of inland shipping accidents and damage claims has been increasing every year since 2014. Also the value of claims for compensation is rising. An additional motivation for the study was expressed by Paul Goris, president of the IWT Platform: “The Inland Waterway Transport sector is on the eve of a major transition in terms of sustainability and digitalisation. This requires further development of standards and certain safety requirements.”


As a result of the research Phase 1 – based on data and expert analysis – several factors were identified that contribute to the incidents.
As a follow-up, two separate studies were requested:
– Phase 2a: Human-machine interface and wheelhouse design;
– Phase 2b: Further investigation into four most plausible accident causes.

The report that Intergo has now delivered covers Phase 2a – an in-depth study of three factors that relate to the root cause of an inadequate Human-System-Integration:
– Wheelhouse design,
– Human-Machine Interface (HMI),
– Current and future levels of automation.

Separate report will cover Phase 2b, addressing the organisational factors, namely: communication, fatigue and stress, specific waterways or situations, and qualifications of crew members.

Both studies in Phase 2 are based on the international questionnaire for skippers and barging companies (in total 85 respondents), followed by 10 visits on the selected vessels that included interviews and observations to obtain a comprehensive overview of the current wheelhouse and HMI design. Both older and newer vessels of different sizes have been visited. Also, a comparison with other transport sectors, like rail and aviation, is made to see how standards, regulations, and guidelines are used to build an effective and safe work environment.


1. Lack of uniformity in the wheelhouses
An important observation collected from the study is that there is little to no uniformity inside the wheelhouses regarding controls and displays at the position of a helmsman. Research shows that even the ‘classic’ instruments, such as rudder control, propulsion control, navigation lights controls, etc. have varying positions from one vessel to another. In the past it was common that a helmsman used to stand at the same helm for several years. The helmsman was hence very familiar with the respective wheelhouse and its operating systems. However, currently on the inland vessels, we face a situation of an only growing number of shifts and changes of personnel. They increasingly come into contact with other wheelhouses and other (auxiliary) equipment. This shift may introduce a risk of human error when operating another vessel, especially in unforeseen circumstances.

2. Location of primary controls and primary displays (radar, ECDIS) not according to the ergonomic standards
During on-board visits, it was noticed by the registered ergonomists that a location of primary controls (i.e. rudder, engine, VHF radio) and primary displays (i.e. radar, ECDIS) is not made according to the ergonomic standards, which is common in other modes of transport. Reachability, visibility, and legibility are often compromised, leading to (potential) errors and musculoskeletal disorders. This issue applies even to some of the newer vessels. The mandatory technical requirements for inland navigation vessels in ES-TRIN contain only general goal-based requirements regarding HMI’s and wheelhouse layout. This is a good basis, but it is insufficient to guide designers and engineers in developing ergonomic wheelhouses. The non-mandatory European standard EN 1864 from 2008 about ergonomic and safety requirements for wheelhouses of inland navigation vessels offers more guidance. However, this standard is not based on the latest ergonomic insights and lacks a systemic design process approach as it is common in other industries. The influence of the automation is not yet included in this standard.

3. Information from automated tools can give a false sense of security
Automated/assistive devices increasingly play a role in inland navigation. During the vessel visits, it became clear though that sometimes the information from these automated tools is unclear to the skipper, whether its availability or reliability. It may also create a false sense of security. On the other hand, some information still needs action and interpretation by the skipper, for instance, awareness and selection of the right VHF channel, and looking up current water levels and integrate this information with other navigation information. It was therefore concluded that quality of information technology and automation can be improved in terms of availability and reliability, but also in usability and integration of information for optimal processing, decision making and operation.


The first recommendation is to update and improve the available wheelhouse and HMI design guidelines. A user- and task-based approach should be followed, and guidelines should anticipate the developments in automation. These design guidelines do not necessarily have to be made mandatory. However, industry involvement and commitment is an important first step in the general use of these guidelines. It should be appealing for the industry to adhere to the design guidelines. New guidelines are of course most interesting for new vessels or major refurbishments, but may also guide (re)placement of additional systems. The second recommendation is to develop a vision on minimum required availability, reliability, usability, and integration of information and automation at the helmsman’s position. This should lead to systems that are safe and offer real support to navigation, without creating new risks such as distraction, false sense of safety, and too many and/or unclear alarms.

Both recommendations may be combined. In order to follow up on the recommendations and their implementation, Intergo advices to create a roadmap that will involve all relevant stakeholders.

The research has been summarised in a technical leaflet, in which the most important aspects are concisely presented. However, what shall we do with these results and recommendations?

What’s next?

The question of human factors root causes is not only about the technical standards and regulations, but also about the qualifications and skills of crew members, and the way how practically everything is organised on-board vessels. It is crucial that the recommendations from study Phase 2a and Phase 2b are followed up in an integrated manner. After all, technical and organisational matters are closely interlinked. The work programme of the Working Group on Technical Regulations (CESNI/PT) states the following: “Review of the results of the research into human factor as an underlying cause of the accidents in inland navigation: human-machine interface and wheelhouse design”. A step-by-step action plan is needed that will actively involve all stakeholders since new guidelines – first and foremost – must attract all relevant parties concerned.

Lijdia Pater, secretary of the IWT Platform, says: “It is an important subject, both for the safety on-board of inland vessels, but also for the image of inland navigation as a safe mode of transport. We want to use the results of this study to make a useful and substantial contribution to further discussions, but above all we want to contribute to reducing or preventing accidents in inland navigation.”

The results of the study’s 2a Phase can be retrieved via the following links:
Report Phase 2a – click here
Report Phase 2a Annex – click here