Digital technologies and alternative fuels are poised to make shipping greener and more profitable. But they also pose safety risks, which have emerged as an area of increasing concern for owners and other stakeholders as they chart paths toward digitalisation and decarbonisation.

The stakes are high, according to DNV, which believes the timely transition towards a smarter, carbon-neutral future may be compromised if safety-related risks are not addressed.

The classification society sheds fresh light on the most pressing challenges—and proposes practical solutions—in a new whitepaper: Closing the safety gap in an era of transformation.

Sparking a candid discussion

The aim of the paper, according lead author Fenna van de Merwe, is to spark a candid discussion that, ultimately, makes safety-related risks easier to identify and manage.'

Meet the Expert

Fenna van de Merwe is principal consultant in human factors in the Maritime Advisory unit at DNV.

She holds a PhD in Cognitive Psychology and has extensive experience in the field of human factors. In her work, Fenna helps organizations identify measures to optimize human performance for safer and more efficient operations.

Connect with Fenna on LinkedIn

While hype surrounding digitalisation and decarbonisation has intensified in recent years, van de Merwe is alarmed by the lack of frank discourse about the challenges that could arise in an era of transformation.

“Over the last few years, in all the discussions in the media, conferences and seminars, we've see an increasing focus on the twin trends of digitalisation and decarbonisation,” she tells TradeWinds Content Studio, during a recent video interview.

“We were seeing this kind of feverish rush to become more digitally smart in order to become more efficient, reduce costs, et cetera. But safety was kind of, lingering around it. So, with that in mind, we felt the need to put safety high up on the agenda.”

To unlock the full potential of new technologies without compromising safety, van de Merwe believes the industry will need to adopt a holistic approach to understanding risk.

“Systems are becoming more and more complex,” she explains, “To properly assess the risks we need to look at risk management from a holistic perspective…from a human point of view, an organisational point of view, a technical point of view, and to see the interactions and interdependency between all of these perspectives.””

In the whitepaper, DNV defines safety as an emergent property of maritime systems that are robust, resilient, and have a process in place for continuous improvement. Systems, in this context, refer to a set of human, organisational, and/or technical elements capable of collective achievements that each component part cannot accomplish alone.

Safety hurdles of digitalisation

Of the many risks associated with digitalisation, DNV’s whitepaper highlights three hurdles that should be top of mind for all stakeholders—and proposes practical solutions to these challenges.

These include traditional approaches to risk management that focus on component reliability. Applying this mindset to complex systems ignores the concept that safety is an emergent property of the entire system, the classification society warns, meaning that something greater than the sum of the parts is what makes systems safer.

“Traditionally, we look at risk management from a reliability point of view and make conclusions based on the reliability of individual components,” van de Merwe explains. “But it's not enough to only look at the reliability of components because it's not just a [simple] mechanical system anymore.”

As technology matures and connectivity increases, DNV believes more operational functions will be centralised and shared amongst dispersed teams as they move from ship to shore. This will necessitate a solid understanding of the human element in the digital future, a structured function-allocation process and human-centred focus in design.

“We need to look at function allocation and a more user-centred design to really make sure the risks don't fall between two chairs when people move from ship to shore,” van de Merwe adds.

The fact that many organisations are becoming a patchwork of multiple stakeholders is another area of concern.

“There are so many expert companies that are top of the bill in terms of digitalisation and digital solutions, and organisations are engaging them to get this expertise in house,” van de Merwe continues. “But in order to really reap the benefits of these solutions, what we’re seeing is an increased need for an overarching digital strategy.”

Safety hurdles of decarbonisation

Digitalisation is a primary enabler of decarbonisation efforts, which means the former benefits from risk mitigation related to the latter, and vice versa. The added challenge with decarbonisation is speed of change on multiple fronts.

“The pace of transformation [tied to decarbonisation] is tremendous,” van de Merwe says. “So, it becomes even more important that we break down silos and work as an industry to collaborate.”

Crew and surveyor checking scrubber, one of the growing list of technologies leading to a greener future in shipping. Photo: DNV

The challenge of keeping pace with technology is not limited to owners and operators. As regulators attempt to build new frameworks, rules, and regulations, they’re also struggling to not fall behind.

“It’s also that, by definition, the rules and regulatory frameworks cannot be proactive because we’re all dependent on the industry to come up with innovative solutions which then need to be regulated,” van de Merwe adds.

Tackling this hurdle will require increased collaboration, knowledge sharing and an industry-wide commitment to bridging regulatory gaps. A similar solution can help combat issues related to the lack of maritime and fuel-specific knowledge amongst suppliers and end users.

Does the industry have what it takes?

Fenna van de Merwe believes collaboration is key to a safer, greener future for shipping. Photo: .shock/Getty Images/iStockphoto

While there’s no shortage of obstacles on the path to digitalisation and decarbonisation, van de Merwe is confident that the shipping industry can rise to the occasion.

“I think the industry is equipped to identify the risks and manage them,” she says. “But, of course, it [varies] segment to segment. There are pockets of stronger and weaker areas in the industry, but in general there is so much experience both in and outside the maritime industry. If we manage to collaborate and break down these silos, then we will definitely be able to come up with the right solution. It’s a matter of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.”

To learn more about the safety challenges that will impact you, and how to solve them, download DNV’s 24-page whitepaper Closing the safety gap in an era of transformation in full.