‘’Through this pandemic, we confirmed that shipping industry reflects better than other industries, it is stronger. Now we have to deal more with welfare and wellbeing’’ Capt. Costas Karavassilis, UK P&I Club, Senior Loss Prevention Executive commented.

Crew challenges at a glance

The maritime industry depends heavily on seafarers, who are the human element in shipping. Human error disguises a variety of underlying problems such as fatigue, poor mental health, stress and other issues, noted Capt. Costas Karavassilis, UK P&I Club, briefly referred to additional crew challenges for consideration:

  • As per latest Allianz Safety and Shipping Review 75 to 96% of incident occurring at sea are attributed directly to human error.
  • The latest Seafarers Happiness Index has fallen by 6.89% since Q3, which is the lowest in 2020 and most probably due to COVID-19 pandemic.
  • An alarming trend found recently was that racism and onboard bullying have been increased.
  • The happiest crew members are the oldest crewmembers who presumably are accustomed to the harsh working conditions onboard. The least happy are those between 35-45 years old.
  • Shore leave is another challenging issue; since there is a lack of qualified seafarers worldwide and people do not have time to take a proper long leave and be able to rest both physically and mentally. Also due to COVID-19 restrictions, shore leave is impossible in many jurisdictions. All these make seafarers feeling trapped onboard and stress levels to become high.
  • seafarers suicide is an alarming trend; seafaring is considered as the second more dangerous occupation when it comes to suicide.

In his turn, Mr. Ross Millar, Steamship Mutual, Loss Prevention Associate, said that many seafarers are feeling isolated. There are various frameworks to assist and protect them but despite all efforts, rules and procedures in place have made crew welfare issues difficult, complex and problematic to solve.

‘’There are over 10 separate areas of welfare covered in MLC but with the introduction of COVID-19 legislation by the governments, crew change and repatriation are among the best known areas circulated in the media. Seafarers contracts have been extended , some with leave dates being pushed back or worse. This has amplified feeling of isolation among fleets. ‘’ Mr. Millar said.

It is worth mentioning that this feeling is equally felt by seafarers at home, who have been marooned until they have the opportunity to join vessels; many of whom have no income until they do so.

Also, many seafarer centres, which are normally located near ports giving the opportunity to seafarers to relax and enjoy a range of facilities as well as stable internet connection, are not available due to pandemic. All these conditions are making current situation even worse. However, on the positive news, many flag states and PSC are updating their guidance on welfare. What is more, the opening of a small number of welfare centres has eased the feeling of isolation and additionally some welfare visits permit crew the ability to confidentially speak about their concerns are being allowed. However, more needs to become to exceed pre-covid levels, Mr Millar highlighted

‘’We are all on the same page with regards to the really tough circumstances that seafarers are facing. But I do believe that this situation is assisting us , it presenting us with a very unique opportunity to create a wellbeing and mental health management for our industry. ‘’ Mr. Johan Smith, Sailors Society Wellness Sea, Programme Manager, noted,

This mental health management system need to:

  • be holistic - understanding of wellbeing as being complex and multi-dimensional
  • be collaborative
  • provide continuity of care
  • do the basics right

Mr. Smith highlighted the importance of continuity of care and of a multi-level intervention to build awareness on multiple levels in which management should be involved as well.

‘’We need to debunk some myths around seafarers and understand wellbeing and mental health from different cultural perspectives. The biggest challenge is our approach to acknowledge that family relationships are one of the cornerstones of positive health. How do we industry ensure that seafarers can bulid and maintain positives relationships with their beloved at home.’’ Mr. Smith added.

Noting that many guidelines have been issued for the prevention and mitigation of COVID-19 disease on ships, since day one, Dr. Athena Stoupis, ShipMedCare Med. Advisor, Dir. of Infectious Disease, Athens Medical Center referred that there are three types of COVID-19 testing (onboard or onshore):

  • Molecular- RT-PCR or Rapid PCR Test
  • COVID-19 antigen test (nasal swab)
  • Antibody blood test

‘’Crew members onboard should be educated and have knowledge of the symptoms of covid-19 and how to report them to the master of shipping.’The ship should not only rely on testing but also need to monitor for symptoms and educate the crew on how to prevent and manage COVID-19 onboard.’ Dr. Stoupis highlighted.

If someone is confirmed as positive or suspect case of COIV-10 onboard – few of the isolation precautions are:

  • single occupancy rooms with private bathrooms, with door closed
  • Persons should wear a face mask anytime they are outside of isolation
  • no direct contact with other persons except for the designated caregivers
  • caregivers should wear proper PPE and ship companies should always provide adequate PPE

‘’Strangely, what we are seeing during COVID-19 period is some people trying to get away with PEME tests which are quite important test prior to joining a ship. ‘’ noted Capt Yves Vandenborn, Director of Loss Prevention at Standard P&I Club who referred one example in which they found one seafarer onboard who had an illness unrelated to COVID-19 but nonetheless managed to go onboard without a PEME test done..

Although a lot is being said about mental wellbeing nowadays, we should not forget about the physical wellbeing . ‘’You can only be as healthy as you feel good in your own body!’’ Capt. Vandenborn reminded.

It is important the chef on onboard to cook healthy food on board, even though seafarers tend to prefer comfort food. Similarly, there is a really good positive aspect of communal dining! The social aspect of this is very important.

Emphasizing the importance of social life onboard, Capt. Vandenborn noted that the pandemic has made the social wellbeing even worse.

‘’Anti-social behaviour is observed by fear of social contact due to COVID-19 . This adds to the negative feeling that crew has and the whole mental depression they may get. Therefore, it is important to talk about any negative feelings.’’ he stressed. Capt. Vandenborn also commented that internet connectivity magnifies the problem as well as increases cyber risks.

Lessons learned from COVID-19 so far

Mental health, not only of seafarers but in general, is now getting more in the spotlight right now than ever before..Mental health has come to the forefront because of this disease.

‘’COVID-19 has made us to ask questions regarding mental health while companies are under pressure to answer these and engage actively with wellbeing in a new way; to think out of the box on how we can actually help seafarers.’’ said Mr. Millar

‘’ COVID-19 can be in some cases mild or even asymptomatic , however they all need to have access to medical personnel and have all their questions answered. ‘’ stressed Dr. Stoupis putting emphasis on the proactive approach that all shipping organizations should adopt.

Also, it was noted that the world has a wrong perception about shipping. Considering that the shelves of super markets are full, people may not understand how critical the current situation is.

‘’ The world needs to understand how important job seafarers are doing. In the end, how do we want the next generation to join industry and think that this is a profession to do in the future. The only thing that they may see at the moment is the discrimination and the way seafarers are being treated at the moment.’’ Capt Yves Vandenborn argued.

How industry supports seafarers who stay home

Furthermore, one of the hidden challenges is for those seafarers who are not onboard for the time being. There is a huge challenges for those people who are stuck ashore for 6 months to one years, they have run out of money, they face several challenges.

Many companies nowadays have a minimum salary for those who do not work. This was well before the pandemic, those companies took care seafarers who stayed at home. Many companies nowadays work that work. However, the pandemic is an unprecedented condition and speakers argued that seafarers have to be patient.

‘’This is global, even in the airlines industries. However, the well established companies actually drive the industry, they do take care of the seafarers working for them. ‘’ Capt. Karavassilis noted, while Mr Millar added that ‘’Major operators have agreements in place for crew who stays ashore. But smaller shipowners obviously struggle. I dont think there is only one solution for it but a range of options and packages.’’

In an effort to help those seafarers, Mr. Smith explained that that Sailors’ Society has set helplines for seafarers. These are getting more and more calls from seafarers who cant get a job, who cant join a vessel because of financial problems and also mental health issues not being able to provide for families.

‘’We foresee that this problem will grow significantly in the coming months. What we have done from our side is to set up helplines that are not only aimed at seafarers onboard but also at families. There are also some welfare grants available at the moment that can practically assist seafarers who are unable to join ships at the moment.’’ he explained.

What’s next

‘’A lot has been said about designating seafarers as key workers; now it is time to spread this message across. My question is in two years, when this is gone and forgotten, will seafarers be considered as key workers? Now it is time to translate seafarers as key workers into regulation which will automatically influence local law.’’ he urged Mr Smith.

‘’ I feel that it is time for authorities to come together and talk about minimum operational safe manning. In this period where fatigue prevails, how operators expect vessels to sail with the minimum crew? ‘’ Capt. Vandenborn added, suggesting that owners need to be make sure that their crew have appropriate accommodation onboard, recreational activities and social; instead of designing ships with more cargo capacity, they should consider to provide more space for the crew

As noted, one of the issues that tis crisis has revealed, is the need for more guidelines instead of regulation. A thought-provoking debate was raised when experts were asked where industry is in need of more more regulation in any aspect of crew welfare.

Shipping is full of regulations which reflect both people ashore and onboard, so I don't feel that regulation will solve the issues; it will just add more manuals and checklists to the people who work. ‘’ Capt. Karavassilis stated. In this regard, he suggested to focus on open and constructive feedback with the crew in order to discuss on the problems they face.

‘’Regulation is a big stressor. So recommendations and actual discussions will assist.’’ he concluded.

‘’In terms of regulations, a lot is being covered in MLC; seafarers have always been resilient. We now see more creativity coming from social media i.e. videos from crew members which try to raise the profile of shipping showing that ships are safe but also a nice environment to work.’’ Mr Millar commented.

It is always an interesting discussion between guidelines vs regulations, Mr Smith said, highlighting that there are many good companies which are looking after their people and they truly focus on wellbeing and welfare.

‘’I appreciate that the industry is overegulated, seafarers have many challenges but I would like to see creating framework to understand wellbeing and welfare and the human element. Such system would assist us to build a bigger picture of the situation. These need to be addressed by NGOs for example’’ he mentioned.

In his turn, Capt. Vandenborn voted no for regulation, presenting the following reality:

‘’MLC and ISM are not being implemented the way they should. The good companies will employ additional crew onboard because they know there is a need for, but the bad companies will not, they will go for minimum safe manning. Also the good companies will ensure there are not any mental health issues onboard or much paperwork, but they bad will not do it’’

Concluding, in order to address this issue, we need to take action to push those ‘not good’ companies to raise their standards.

Industry’s priorities in the post pandemic era

Moving forward, experts discussed about our priorities to the post pandemic industry with respect to crew welfare.‘’Now it is time to take care of our seafarers and try to understand them, open discussions to understand their feeling’’ Capt. Karavassilis highlighted.

Once again, Mr Millar said that collaboration and engagement is need to move forward with crew welfare. This means that the whole industry needs to be concerned about the problem. , while Mr Smith suggested that a wellbeing management system should be considered as well as embracing technology to do new and creative things

‘’COVID-19 has shed focus on good hygiene practices , people are now more knowledgable how to be protected from the disease, this is a positive outcome for the future’’ Dr Stoupis noted.

Lastly, Capt. Vandenborn emphasized that we need to take also action with regards to discrimination of seafarers.