Dr. Maria Carrera, Research Associate at the World Maritime University (WMU) in Malmö, Sweden, presents key findings from a recent study that explored the seafarers’ experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting that it is now time to change the perception that seafarers’ resilience will last forever no matter what.
In fact, normalizing this assumption is a new alarming trend; therefore, industry needs to focus on a wider and systemic view that acknowledge the realities of seafarers’ safety, health, and wellbeing, paying more attention to the economic and labour factors, Dr. Carrera stresses.
SAFETY4SEA: What are the key challenges of this pandemic crisis for the seafarers? Do you see any opportunities?
Dr. Maria Carrera: The key challenges are still seafarers’ repatriation, access to health care, lack of shore leave, extended working hours, and impact of disruption of the sign-on/sign-off schedules. These are the immediate challenges but future ones will be fully unveiled in the medium and long term and will concern seafarers’ psychological health (e.g., anxiety, depression, trauma) and exhaustion and leaving of seafaring occupation. Unless preventive measures are adopted seafarers will either become chronically ill or quit their jobs. All crises bring opportunities if there is a willingness to make changes. There is certainly more talk, conversations, and even initiatives to support seafarers’ mental health; then the opportunity I see is that the industry finally acknowledges the impact of mental health on safe vessels’ operations. The industry has a great opportunity to work collaboratively towards creating and implementing a culture of care for seafarers, both during and outside pandemics or other disruptive events.
S4S: Do you see any alarming trends to shed our focus on with regards to crew welfare amid the crew change crisis?
M.C.: The effects of the crew change crisis on the psychological health and wellbeing of seafarers are being evidenced in surveys so far. A recent study conducted by researchers of the World Maritime University (WMU) in collaboration with other universities from Australia, Sweden, and the UK, has explored the seafarers’ experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. The study concludes that long periods of time spent onboard, together with an increase in workload for many of the respondents, were reflected in heightened levels of exhaustion, with over half of the respondents indicating that they felt exhausted and tired during work. These high levels of exhaustion are concerning because they can increase the risk of injuries and accidents. Indeed, with sustained high levels of exhaustion, there is also a risk of chronic fatigue build-up, with negative consequences for seafarers’ physical and mental health. However, there is a need to bring all these data and studies together and inform the industry about the impact for the maritime business of a chronically ill, exhausted, and hopeless workforce. The risk the industry is taking is assuming that seafarers’ resilience will last forever no matter what, and the alarming trend is to normalize this assumption.
S4S: Which are the key areas to address human behavior and performance at sea successfully?
M.C.: In the context of the management of work at sea, the concept of human behaviour and performance still has a narrow interpretation. In practice, strategies and procedures associated with behaviourally based approaches to managing health and safety are still predominant. This is problematic because human performance improvement is not just a matter of changing seafarers’ attitudes and behaviours but it concerns issues of work organization and work environment. A wider and systemic view that captures the realities of seafarers’ safety, health, and wellbeing is needed as well as it is paying more attention to the economic and labour factors that prevent this change of conceptualization to happen.
S4S: How should we further invest in our people and how technology could come to our privilege towards that end?
M.C.: Connectivity is still a challenge in the industry, although benefits have been evidenced during the pandemic for seafarers to be in contact with their loved ones. However, using technology to resolve human problems is not going to work. Human problems need human solutions. There is more technology than ever but more mental health issues than ever too. So, technology can for example help seafarers to stay in touch with their loved ones but cannot replace their social needs onboard vessels; or technology can bring more immediate health advice for seafarers but cannot replace the hours of rest or practice of exercise they need for staying healthy as human beings. Hence, investing in providing seafarers with the work and living environment that will keep them fit for duty is key.
S4S: Considering the ongoing humanitarian crisis (due to the pandemic) and recent accidents (i.e. Ever Given), how may the young generation think of the shipping industry? How should we work to raise industry’s profile to the next talents?
M.C.: The young generation is witnessing the ongoing humanitarian crisis, and unless they also witness proactive actions to solve it they will not probably develop interest and motivation for working at sea. The shipping industry needs to embrace technologies and innovation but also to care for the workforce who deal with those technologies. Moreover, more young women need to be attracted to shipping, although there are trends that indicate that due to the pandemic crisis we could be seeing a great decrease in the number of women who want to work in the industry.
S4S: In your view, has the industry been successful in implementing safety culture onboard? Where should we focus on?
M.C.: An effective safety culture needs to take into account the workplace realities experienced by seafarers and the consequences of the way in which work is organized and workers employed onboard. The study “a culture of adjustment” conducted by researchers of WMU concluded important shortcomings in the implementation of safety culture onboard in the context of work and rest hours and their record-keeping inaccuracy. Incentivizing seafarers’ feedback and incorporating their views on safety are necessary to enhance the safety culture in the industry. The current status of safety culture in shipping has been studied as part of the ongoing EU-funded project SAFEMODE, which aims to consolidate best practices for Human Factors input to transport safety. The project has developed a Safety Learning Culture framework, which could possibly deliver a step-change improvement in safety in a relatively short timeframe for shipping. The framework proposes best practices in safety learning, already evident in some parts of the industry, and how these could add safety improvements and shore up safety culture.
S4S: What is your wish list for the operators with regards to human factor? What needs to be considered to discussions around the human factor?
M.C.: My wish list includes that operators are not seen as the cause of accidents, but that contributory human and organizational factors are analyzed with systemic lens. The inference then is that the system needs to change in order to avoid recurrence, whether through changes to training, procedures, design, culture, etc. Discussions around the human factor must move away from a “culture of failure” where finding someone to blame is the aim, and focus on contributory factors and operational context, and recommendations that concern those factors, but not the person(s) at the sharp end.
S4S: What is your message to industry stakeholders with regards to mental health and wellbeing?
M.C.: That our solutions will not be a bunch of guides for mental health or technology to collect evidence of mental distress, but that we put people at the forefront and that we address the factors that affect them. In addition, that future maritime leaders will be psycho-educated about mental health and wellbeing and the challenges seafarers face, so they can facilitate changes in the industry and implement sustainable strategies to keep a healthy and fit for duty workforce. At WMU we have just conducted a month-long pilot training course entitled “Introduction to mental health and wellbeing: WaW – We are Well”. The course aimed to provide tools for the future maritime and oceans leaders to influence positive change in the industry by developing their understanding and awareness of wellbeing and mental health issues for their own benefit as well as that of people working in the maritime industry.
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.
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