In an exclusive interview to SAFETY4SEA, Mrs Sandra Welch, CEO at Seafarers Hospital Society (SHS) reveals key highlights of a landmark study on seafarers’ health and safety onboard to highlight priorities for the industry in order to improve maritime health initiatives.
he pandemic is a stark reminder that we need to care about people, both personally and professionally, Mrs Welch says and explains how SHS supports seafarers by providing a number of exclusive services during the pandemic. In general, SHS has been advocating for seafarers’ welfare even before COVID-19 as it is an established charity with 200 years of action dedicated to meeting health, welfare and advice needs of seafarers.
SAFETYSEA: What are the key challenges of this pandemic crisis for the shipping industry?
Sandra Welch: Seafarers have been the invisible unsung heroes of this pandemic, despite the fact that the world continues to rely on them to transport more than 80% of trade, including food and medical goods, energy, and raw materials, across the globe. They have also been the invisible victims of the crisis with travel restrictions and challenges accessing vaccinations leaving an estimated 250,000 stranded on ships, or unable to join ships according to the IMO. So the need for our services and for those of the maritime welfare charity sector in general has never been greater.
At this time, challenges exist at a variety of levels: without global consensus and individual governments recognising and conferring key worker status for crew, many seafarers continue to experience issues with transit. We’re also seeing a rising numbers of seafarers being abandoned, problems with the bodies of deceased individuals being repatriated (as Guy Platten from ICS and Ismael Cobos Delgado from the IMO’s SCAT team discussed at our LISW21 panel), financial issues for families of seafarers, and exacerbated incidents of depression and anxiety. Currently the industry is triaging solutions, trying to cover the need for up-to-date information to manage expectations within and outside of the industry, fundraising in order to provide support to seafarers and their families, and liaise where possible to provide vaccinations or healthcare, etc. However, we are aware that these are short term fixes and that longer term solutions will require a further comprehensive effort from a wide variety of stakeholders in the industry.
S4S: Do you see any opportunities?
S.W.: I think many people have looked at the pandemic as an opportunity to bring together what is otherwise a large and fairly fragmented industry. It’s also been a chance for the wider public to understand the effects of isolation on mental health, which has made raising awareness of the issues seafarers face slightly easier in that regard. And as supply chain issues are brought to global attention, there is a slowly growing awareness of seafarers as people providing these services and keeping these systems running. So there are positives, though these are not without their own negatives attached.
In terms of our own personal positives, it helps that Seafarers Hospital Society is an established charity with 200 years dedicated to meeting health, welfare and advice needs of seafarers. Having that system already in place meant that we were well placed to be able to provide a range of assistance to seafarers quite rapidly, rather than having to begin from scratch.
We’ve remained true to our mission, and the pandemic has given us the opportunity to help more seafarers. So this has meant that we have had to devote additional financial resources to do so. We provide health and welfare grants, fund sessions for an online counselling service, and provide a number of other services exclusively for seafarers. In the past, and particularly during the pandemic, we have been here to help merchant seafarer and fishers, and the people who depend on them. We also provide advice and support to Royal Navy and Royal Marine personnel through SAIL.
S4S: What are the key findings from the joint study on maritime worker health initiatives?
S.W.: While these are early findings, we believe that there are certain priorities for action that remain at the forefront of any efforts to improve maritime health initiatives. These emerged from two round tables we conducted with shipping companies, based on both feasibility and impact. These action points include:
- Getting the basics right: quality, culturally appropriate food and accessible drinking water, suitable accommodation and recreation facilities.
- Minimising bureaucratic workload and undue pressure: automate/move-ashore as far as possible.
- Improving alignment between owners and charterers in support of seafarers’ health and wellbeing: participants cited the role of charterers in relation to undue pressure and bureaucratic workload on crew and inhibiting crew changes. While the ‘interface’ wasn’t explored explicitly in the round tables, specific measures were deemed addressable and important, such as owners not agreeing to ‘no crew change’ clauses in contracts with charterers.
- Contract length and timely relief: Participants discussed the feasibility of reducing average/maximum contract length and the importance of communicating with crew and managing its expectations around relief.
- ‘Big picture’ questions around intensive schedules of port calls and their contribution to fatigue – time for a radical rethink?
- Measuring/evaluating the effect of interventions and the need for industry collaboration in establishing ‘what works’.
- Training: mental health training for crew, leadership training, ‘ship-shore interface’ training were all deemed important and feasible. There was broad Support for the Mental Health and Wellbeing Training Standard, developed by the Maritime Charities Group.
- Culture of care: this goes beyond occupational safety and health and relates to the whole package of benefits and support offered to seafarers and their families. A holistic approach is needed.
S4S: Tell us a few words about the project.
S.W.: The Seafarers Hospital Society (SHS) and Yale University are collaborating on a landmark study to determine the effectiveness of initiatives taken by shipping companies, charities and the wider maritime sector to keep seafarers healthy and safe. Independent global charity Lloyd’s Register Foundation (the Foundation), which has a mission to engineer a safer world, is also working on the project to provide support and expertise in evidence collection with a specific focus on mental health and wellbeing.
This six-month study aims to review existing research and recommendations, identify current practices, determine their coverage across the industry and assess their perceived effectiveness. The full results are due to be presented at a hybrid conference in London on 26 November 2021.
S4S: What has been the experience of Seafarers’ Hospital Society with respect to maritime worker health so far?
S.W.: Seafarers Hospital Society has been looking after the health and welfare of seafarers for 200 years, with a particular focus on seafarer health and keeping seafarers fit to work at sea. As a consequence, this is not the first global epidemic we’ve worked through, and it affords us a unique perspective that understands first hand how closely public health and wellbeing are intertwined with seafarer health and wellbeing.
This is true not only because seafarers are key to supply chains that keep medicine, information, and goods moving through the world, but also because SHS has assisted in fundraising for the creation of the Dreadnought and Albert Dock hospitals, now part of the NHS. Documentation and findings from the Society’s doctors and nurses not only helped with the treatment of seafarers, but also with wider health concerns for the public. As a result, when we advocate for seafarers to be vaccinated and declared keyworkers, we do so with this deep understanding of how public welfare and seafarer welfare are linked.
S4S: What are the key priorities of your organization towards that issue?
S.W.: At this time, the Society continues to make provision for developing health services while also exploring a new avenue that seeks to address early intervention and prevention approach within health and wellbeing services through our strategic partnerships. These include: (1) physiotherapy, wherein we will continue to provide free, fast track physiotherapy to all active seafarers in the MN and FF, to enable them to access therapy for their injuries in a timely and flexible way and return to work as soon as possible; mental health services, where we continue to provide free access to online counselling services with TogetherAll for active seafarers for while exploring other types of mental health and wellbeing support; and (3) dental care, where – apart for the ongoing partnership work to develop a longer-term solution to dental care needs of fishermen – the Society will explore other ways of improving the dental health of seafarers and their families. The Society will also explore the need for preventative dental services for the MN.
S4S: Are you satisfied with industry stakeholders’ response on the issue of crew welfare until today?
S.W.: I think there is always room for improvement. In the current crisis there are many companies who are doing an excellent job providing first rate health support for crew and there are others who do not do this effectively at all.
S4S: Where should ship operators focus on?
S.W.: First and foremost, it is important to create a culture of care not only because is the right thing to do, but it’s also a sound business move. A culture of care is more than just caring for your crew, it is very much a holistic approach which goes beyond occupational safety and health, and relates to the whole package of benefits and support offered to seafarers and their families.
It isn’t something you can institute overnight. It takes planning and, most of all, follow-through by corporate leadership right across the organisation. As the old saying goes, “Put your money where your mouth is.” If your crew see you making a tangible investment, in building a culture of care, they will see that you are serious about it.
The idea of a culture of care encompasses many things:
- leaders caring about crew
- crew caring for each other and the work they are paid to do.
This is particularly important when trying to break down stigmas relating to poor mental health having your company leaders buying into this and addressing this positively.
S4S: In your view, has the industry handled the COVID-19 crisis effectively so far?
S.W.: I think the pandemic is something which is unprecedented for our current industry. People were having to react to situations without being able to predict long-term outcomes at a time where the entire world was struggling to understand what the on-the-ground realities would need to entail. Even now, the situation is far from resolved.
However, there are many stakeholders advocating vociferously and this gives me a lot of hope. I do think that the pandemic has brought home the value of people, be it personally or professionally, within the industry as well as outside of it.
S4S: What are the lessons learned?
S.W.: As I said before, the pandemic is a stark reminder that we need to care about people, both personally and professionally. I think it makes a clear case for why the maritime industry can no longer put off seafarer health and welfare as an optional add-on, to be discarded at the first need to tighten up budgets.
As an industry, we need to account for the fact that reacting post-crisis means that we are not pre-emptively addressing identified concerns, and it is unlikely to be time and cost effective to only react after the fact. Instead, we need to approach solutions holistically, looking beyond the presumed solution of siloed systems like resilience training or treatment (that may or may not be stigmatised), to a preventative approach that reviews risk factors and seeks alternatives. We need to move the onus from individuals – whether seafarers, company representatives, or those providing them with aid – to assessing which changes can be quickly instituted, and which changes are likely to be a longer process, and then begin going about these.
The views presented hereabove are only those of the author and do not necessarily those of SAFETY4SEA and are for information sharing and discussion purposes only.