The consumption of alcohol onboard is being progressively phased out through strict regulations with most organizations enforcing non-alcohol policies, in a time when increased anxiety and deteriorating mental health of seafarers as a professional group is at the center of discussions.
2010 research examining premature deaths associated with ill-health and disease among working people revealed that male seafarers have some of the highest mortality rates due to alcohol, drugs and sexual habits. Scientific evidence also suggests that individuals who work excessive hours or shifts are more prone to consuming problematic amounts of alcohol.
STCW 1978, as amended, was further amended in June 2010 (“the Manila amendments”). Regulation VIII/1, Code A-VIII/1 and B-VIII/1 bringing in new provisions on fitness for duty – alcohol limits. Among the Manila amendments were provisions introducing mandatory alcohol limits within STCW Regulation VIII/1 (Fitness for Duty) of 0.05% for blood and 0.25 mg/l for breath.
The current regulatory landscape has long ago recognized that any level of alcohol consumption by crew members onboard a ship has implications for the safety of the vessel, the crew and any passengers. Even small quantities of alcohol have been shown to sufficiently impair judgment and increase the risk of accidents.
Three real-life cases where alcohol led to maritime accidents
- Case 1: On 23 May 2019, a general cargo vessel started loading a cargo of cement at Port of Seville, Spain. As the second officer climbed onto the hatch coaming, the chief officer drove the crane aft, trapping and fatally crushing the second officer against the hatch covers. The accident occurred on the second officer’s birthday and postmortem showed that he had consumed alcohol. UK MAIB investigation stressed that the victim’s perception of risk was probably adversely affected by alcohol and that the company’s drug and alcohol policy was not being enforced.
- Case 2: On 3 November 2018, the second engineer onboard a general cargo ship fell from the stairway as he was making his way down to the engine room to take over the watch. He was found lying unconscious and, despite CPR, was confirmed dead. Transport Malta investigation said the high level of alcohol found in his body likely contributed to impaired judgement or loss of consciousness.
- Case 3: On 30 December 2018, the Master of a passenger vessel hit the mooring dolphins at a US Navy fueling wharf in Apra Harbor, Guam. NTSB investigation identified alcohol impairment of the master while he conned the vessel, resulting in an errant astern engine input, as key cause.
On the other hand, alcohol has been correlated with wellness onboard, from the perspective of distraction to stressful factors associated with the increased workload and isolation onboard. Seafarers spend months away from their family and friends, a working condition which has a priori an adverse impact for their mental health. The restrictions linked to COVID-19 pandemic came to add to their sense of isolation, as they left thousands of them trapped onboard for months exceeding their contracts in violation of MLC.
A recent study conducted as part of ISWAN’s Social Interaction Matters project identified ‘No alcohol onboard’ as a main barrier to social interaction onboard, with respondents seeing an occasional beer or wine as a small step that could make a big change. A fine balance with this respect could be for shipping companies to implement alcohol restrictions rather than alcohol bans, said Capt. Yves Vandenborn, Director of Loss Prevention at the Standard P& Club during a SAFETY4SEA event in 2019.
It is true that one of the main incentives to try and at least talk to other people is if you’ve had a glass; it makes us all a lot easier to talk to. Coffee doesn’t do that for many people,
The way forward
An alcohol-free ship definitely provides a safer working environment. The advantages of a Drug and Alcohol Policy is the protection of the welfare of employees, shipboard safety and the environment by reducing the risk and cost of accidents caused by impaired judgement.
However, taking into consideration a seafarer’s lifestyle, we could argue that smoking and drinking is being seen as a way to relieve from stress, overcome loneliness and boost confidence for the introverts who wish to be more involved in recreation activities onboard. At a time when studies one after another unveil a continuous rise in seafarers’ anxiety levels and suicidal thoughts, a glass of wine or a beer facilitates communication by making us all a lot easier to talk to.
Meanwhile, we cannot oversee the fact that fatigue has a similar impact to the effects of drinking alcohol, in its ability to slow responses and cause people to make mistakes. Although the issue of excessive alcohol consumption onboard has now been “addressed,” seafarers are still struggling with fatigue on a daily basis, despite provisions made within the STCW and MLC to help regulate excessive work hours.
The new era shaped through the COVID-19 pandemic may be a chance to redefine current norms. In this respect, shipowners or operating companies should focus, not only on adopting policies and procedures to prevent drug and alcohol abuse on ships, but mostly start from educating seafarers on the harmful effects and consequences of the unauthorized possession and abuse of alcohol and providing confidential advice, support, and assistance to any seafarers known to have such problems.