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Health and safety

Mind the gap

2 October 2020

The International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) has released survey results covering health protection measures onboard ship in response to Covid-19, revealing a significant gap between companies and seafarers. Rob Coston reports.

The ITF report into health protection measures on board ships in response to Covid-19 contains several worrying statistics, but one stands out.

Some 94% of companies say that they have provided training on shipboard plans and procedures to deal with Covid-19 – for example through posters, training videos or information sheets – yet nearly a third of seafarers surveyed still say that they have not received any instruction.

This is a dangerous oversight. Even if a company has put helpful procedures in place there is no guarantee they will be properly followed without adequate training.

ITF has urged companies to improve their communications and encouraged seafarers to request the information and protection they deserve.

About the survey

The health protection report contains data collected in two separate surveys, one of international seafarers conducted by the ITF and another by the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), which surveyed its member companies. Note that the seafarers may not be serving with vessels covered by the ICS survey, which may explain some of the discrepancy between the figures.

In creating the report the ITF was keen to see if there was any improvement from the first few months of the pandemic.

'We'd hoped to see some kind of understanding from the seafarers of what is happening with Covid and that their company had put things in place to protect them, because in the early days of the pandemic there was a sense that they were not aware,' International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) assistant section secretary, seafarers, fisheries and inland navigation Fabrizio Barcellona said.

'I think the situation has dramatically improved but there are still some areas that need to be worked on. We believe that companies now have policies in place, but these aren’t necessarily being communicated to seafarers.'

Safety is the responsibility of both company and seafarer. If the policy is perfect but not communicated and implemented correctly it's not a good policy ITF assistant section secretary, seafarers, fisheries and inland navigation Fabrizio Barcellona

What should seafarers expect?

While Covid-19 is a new threat, the World Health Organisation International Health Regulations (2015) and the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) create clear responsibilities for health protection that still apply during this pandemic situation.

Under the MLC 'every seafarer has the right to a safe and secure workplace that complies with safety standards and to health protection, medical care, welfare measures and other forms of social protection.'

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO) this would include the provision of alcohol-based handrub and personal protective equipment as well as access to prompt and adequate medical care while working on board, access to care on shore when in need of immediate treatment, and 24 hour free medical advice by radio or satellite communication.

Seafarers with Covid-19 are entitled to paid sick leave/benefits when they are unable to work. This also applies to quarantine periods on board or ashore, whether the seafarer is ill, exposed to Covid-19 or simply kept apart as a precaution (unless local authorities bear the cost).

The reality

Many of the companies surveyed by the ICS seem to have put adequate measures in place. For example, the vast majority have proper procedures for disinfection, for dealing with visitors and wearing face masks.

There are still areas that need work though – for example, while governments around the world have put enormous emphasis on social distancing and bubbles' to prevent people mixing with those from outside their group, 45% of seafarers say their company does not require segregation or distancing of seafarers who join their ship and 35% do not think that their ship has procedures in place to restrict or limit the number of visitors (some 9% of companies admit that they don't have a procedure at all).

And as pointed out, the worrying fact is that many seafarers are unsure that their employers are living up to their responsibilities. The statistics below reflect the findings of the full report, which shows a clear gap between the protection that ICS companies say they are delivering and the protection that seafarers from a range of companies receive.

  • 93% of companies say they have specific plans and procedures to protect the health of seafarers and the safety of ships during the pandemic. Almost all these companies claim to have included arrangements to isolate, look after and request external medical help for seafarers who show symptoms, as well as arrangements for disinfection and cleaning to control transmission of the virus. However, 32% of the seafarers who must put these plans into action say they are not aware that a plan even exists
  • 92% of seafarers say that they have received general Covid-19 information but only 70% have been given training or instruction
  • 91% of companies say that they have special instructions on PPE for visitors and that it is now available onboard ship, yet 27% of seafarers say that there are no arrangements and 40% say no PPE equipment is available for visitors

Additionally, there are serious worries about MLC violations relating to shore leave and denial of access to medical care ashore, with 32% of companies saying that a seafarer had been refused care due to coronavirus restrictions at port. Under the MLC, all seafarers are to be granted shore leave to benefit their health and wellbeing, and they should also have access to port-based welfare services. While Covid-19 outbreaks might sometimes restrict this, companies must continue to respect their obligations and ensure seafarers receive the treatment and time ashore they are entitled to whenever possible.

Improving the situation

The ITF finishes its report with a list of recommendations for both companies and seafarers.

Companies are urged to ensure Covid-19 plans and procedures are communicated effectively, and that ships and seafarers receive the equipment to put them in place.

Seafarers have a responsibility to follow the plans and procedures, but also to request additional information or clarification where needed.

There are additional, detailed recommendations laid out in the report, which can be accessed via

Mr Barcellona is clear: 'Safety is the responsibility of both company and seafarer. If the policy is perfect but not communicated and implemented correctly it's not a good policy.'

With better communication, planning and provision from companies, and greater engagement from seafarers, the Covid-19 situation onboard ships can continue to improve.


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