Bridge ergonomics

Updated 11 Oct 2019


Ergonomics and improved man-machine interfaces have been in vogue for many years and across a whole range of industries including shipping. While there is much to be said in favour of harmonising symbology and controls to some degree, it is an acknowledged fact that humans are individuals and a one-size-fits-all approach must inevitably result in some compromises in design.

In December 2000, the IMO distributed MSC/Circ.982 which included the Guidelines on Ergonomic Criteria for Bridge Equipment and Layout. The guidelines had been developed by the Maritime Safety Committee to “assist designers in realising a sufficient ergonomic design of the bridge, with the objective of improving the reliability and efficiency of navigation” and were in support of amendments to Regulation V/15 of the SOLAS Convention – Principles relating to bridge design, design and arrangement of navigational systems and equipment and bridge procedures, which were to enter into force on 1 July 2002.

The 31-page document is extensive in its reach and detail even to the point of laying down minimum and maximum dimensions for specific areas of the bridge and positioning of controls and introducing requirements for placing pencils and tools around the bridge.

There is also an element of transition that can be seen in the guidelines particularly around ECDIS which is now at the end of a mandatory roll-out programme.

Most versions of ECDIS now warrant a display at the centre of the integrated bridge system but in December 2000 they were usually standalone systems and might have been found either at the navigation and manoeuvring workstation at the front of the bridge or at the planning and documentation workstation at the rear of the bridge. For obvious reasons, the guidelines only apply to new vessels and identify no less than seven separate workstations, which are described in the regulation section together with a list of equipment, systems and controls that should be found there.

The workstations and their associated equipment are supposed to allow for the most ergonomic bridge permitted by modern equipment, but it is difficult to equate them with the bridge layouts seen on some of the latest vessels, which appear minimalistic by comparison with bridges from just a few years ago. Some of that conception has been brought about by integrating the various controls digitally into just a few display screens that allow overlaying of information systems according to user requirements.

The principles of ergonomics also seem to be constantly evolving, as does the technology that allows new forms of man-machine interfacing, such as touch-screens and wide-screen displays and even the promise of using nothing more than gestures, as with some modern computer gaming consoles, to operate controls or switch between displays. Bringing information together in fewer places also makes life easier on those ships that have minimum personnel on the bridge.

Innovation on the bridge is not confined to the equipment systems and controls contained in consoles as a product such as Alphatron Marine’s AlphaMultiCommand Chair and similar products from other makers, means that some or all of the equipment can be incorporated into a seat.

In some vessels – usually offshore types or tugs – the seats are installed so as to be mobile, allowing the chair to be moved from the forward position to one better suited to working alongside a rig or second ship with vision through the side windows.

Overcoming size differences

The rules and guidelines on ergonomics say little about differences in individual physical characteristics of navigators or those using the equipment. In fact SOLAS in many instances is quiet on this very obvious point although the fact that differences do exist is at least recognised in regard to life jackets and other safety equipment.

In SOLAS Chapter V, Regulation 22 covering navigation bridge visibility, there is one reference to the difference in crew heights and that is point 1.8 which reads: “The upper edge of the navigation bridge front windows shall allow a forward view of the horizon, for a person with a height of eye of 1,800mm above the bridge deck at the conning position, when the ship is pitching in heavy seas. The Administration, if satisfied that a 1,800mm height of eye is unreasonable and impractical, may allow reduction of the height of eye but not to less than 1,600mm.”

It is difficult to say what percentage of seafarers fall outside the range of those two height-of-eye measurements, but there are undoubtedly quite a few and with initiatives to encourage more women into shipping, the number is likely to increase. Obviously, adjustable seating or a platform will allow for shorter seafarers to reach the minimum measurements if necessary.

US-based Marine Technologies has presented at some exhibitions an adjustable version of its Bridge Mate IBS. Although many systems are claimed to be ergonomic, the fact that the human frame comes in many shapes and sizes means that they must be optimised to one particular standard. The Marine Technologies bridge goes some way to addressing the problem faced by navigators that do not meet the norm by incorporating a mechanism that allows the console and displays to be raised or lowered to suit.

All of the leading bridge manufacturers and several of the smaller players now offer integrated bridge and navigation systems. In recognition of this, the leading classification societies – which, through IACS, played a part in devising the IMO rules and guidelines – have also introduced class notations for ships that are fitted with the new systems. Offshore vessels – probably because excellent all-round vision is vital in the roles they undertake – seem to have been at the centre of many recent bridge design projects.

For example, Vard’s SeaQ bridge features several innovations, including a transparent floor which allows navigators to view the deck and helipad of the ship without any blind spots caused by the consoles and displays and haptic controls. While any individual bridge can be customised, one display version featured two seated command workstations each of which was served by two touch panel displays within easy reach and a trio of multifunction displays for the likes of ECDIS, radar and conning and helm controls. In addition, a comprehensive overhead display allows for an optimal workspace.

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