Introduction: There are numerous diverse papers that have addressed issues within maritime safety; to date there has been no comprehensive review of this literature to aggregate the causal factors within accidents in shipping and surmise current knowledge. Methods: This paper reviewed the literature on safety in three key areas: common themes of accidents, the influence of human error, and interventions to make shipping safer. The review included 20 studies of seafaring across the following areas: fatigue, stress, health, situation awareness, teamwork, decision-making, communication, automation, and safety culture. Results: The review identifies the relative contributions of individual and organizational factors in shipping accidents, and also presents the methodological issues with previous research. Conclusions: The paper concludes that monitoring and modifying the human factors issues presented in this paper could contribute to maritime safety performance. Impact on industry: This review illustrates which human factors issues are prevalent in incidents therefore this gives shipping practitioners a focus for interventions. (c) 2006 National Safety Council and Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.