While seafarers’ satisfaction seemed to increase in the pre-COVID period in several sections of everyday life onboard, limited internet connection remains a main area of concern. Even before the global lockdown, the SAFETY4SEA Crew Wellness Survey unveiled connectivity as the most prevalent demand across a total of 9,768 seafarers globally.
In today’s ever-connected world, most of us take Internet connection for granted. Smart phone use is like breathing for Millennials and of course for younger generations, but also a vital component of everyday life for older generations. However, this survey unveiled that this is not the case for a professional group vital to the world’s economy.
In open feedback questions at the end of the questionnaire, the most regular complaint highlighted was limited WiFi onboard and subsequent poor communication with loved ones. Several respondents stressed that internet connection is too expensive, while others said there is no internet in their cabins, but only in selected places onboard.
In line with the SAFETY4SEA survey outcome, a 2019 survey by ICS and ECSA to 276 operators revealed the benefits of internet access onboard outweigh safety concerns, since it increases well-being of seafarers, as well as the morale of seafarers in the company. In addition, a Cardiff study published in late 2019 identified seafarers free internet access as one of the most significant contributions that could be made by employers to the improvement of mental health.
Lack of connectivity has been linked to an increased feeling of stress and isolation for seafarers who spend most of their lives away from family, while, at the same time, several maritime casualties have been attributed to technology distraction, providing a key argument for the supporters of a limited connectivity onboard. This creates a dilemma of compromising safety over crew wellbeing and backwards. But where does the truth lie? Let’s take a more detailed look:
-Communication with loved ones: Being away from home and loved ones is the main argument of those who won’t opt for careers at sea. By living three months onshore, you don’t have the time to see your kid growing up. Internet offers a great opportunity for seafarers to overpass distance barriers and for shipping in general to make the job more attractive.
-Feeling connected to the world: News agenda never stops and updates run in an accelerated pace. Meanwhile, Social Media have become an integral part of our lives with a leading role in information sharing. Having equal opportunities to scroll down the news at any time as any other everyday individual can make crews feel less cut off from the outside world.
-Managing everyday tasks: Internet offers unlimited opportunities for realizing everyday tasks, like remotely handling your finances. It also serves as a quick reference for any regulatory update or enables downloading any necessary documents, making life easier.
-Impeding social life onboard: Smart phone use has been vastly associated with social isolation, as people tend to absorb themselves onto a screen instead of interacting with others. The same can occur in the small society of a ship. Having a problem and watching a movie rather than discussing it may not be the solution. Gone are the days of real life camaraderie and chatting around the dinner table. All the chatting is reserved online. Seafarers need social interaction with their mates as an offset to stress and loneliness associated with the job and excessive internet use can be a major “trap” to this.
-Affecting rest hours: Unlimited internet access may trigger the inevitable urge to use social media instead of sleeping or relaxing. Meanwhile, the use of devices before bedtime is associated to poor quality sleep. Time can easily get lost online and seafarers could drag themselves into fatigue without even realizing it.
-Serving as potential distraction: The increased use of portable electronic devices (PEDs) has been seen as an increasing risk in vessel operations, especially as digitalization has made internet connection vital in the ship’s bridge. Using electronic devices has been demonstrated to be visually, manually, and cognitively distracting. Taking cell phones and laptops on the bridge where connectivity is available for sure may seem tempting, but it is a navigational hazard. Eliminating distractions was at the top of NTSB’s list of Transportation Safety Improvements in 2018.
The way forward
As in most cases, we could say that the truth is somewhere in between. The world is moving in an unprecedented pace that people are unable to handle. Today’s world makes 24/7 internet use, rather than a necessity, even more a normality and shipping cannot escape.
Maybe it is not on the shipowner to limit Internet (or provide low quality internet) onboard, but on the individual’s responsibility to determine the extent of technology use. In the same way that a bus driver can enjoy available connectivity but he or she chooses not to use it when driving, and in the same way that a doctor chooses not to use it when operating, it is a great deal of discussion why shipping should leave crews lagging behind over safety concerns.
With appropriate guidelines and provisions, any potentially adverse effects of constant connectivity could be eliminated. It is entirely up to the crew, as well as the ship management, to ensure that crews could reap the benefits of Internet as a great invention.