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Health and safety

The right to be well – should seafarer wellbeing be enshrined in maritime law?

20 May 2019

As shocking statistics on seafarer suicides and depression are published, calls are growing for crew wellbeing to be linked with ship safety and included in international regulations. Meanwhile, shipowners are being urged to improve onboard internet access, as an increasing body of research underlines the importance of connectivity in combatting loneliness and isolation. Helen Kelly reports

There are growing calls within the maritime industry for the mental health of seafarers to be given the same importance as vessel safety – and enshrined in maritime law.

The groundswell of support comes as shocking data into seafarer mental health and suicide is published by the Sailors’ Society maritime welfare charity. Almost 6% of deaths at sea are attributable to suicide, and this figure rises dramatically if probable suicides are considered – i.e. seafarers going missing at sea under suspicious circumstances – according to RT Iversen’s respected study The Mental Health of Seafarers.  

Long contracts at sea, thousands of miles away from families and friends, can be incredibly isolating and challenging, especially with inconsistent or no internet access. The Sailors’ Society found in a joint study with Yale University that more than a quarter of seafarers suffer from depression – and many won’t ask for help.

'For too many, the pressure feels unbearable,' said Sailors’ Society deputy CEO Sandra Welch. The charity’s Not On My Watch Campaign (see page 27), launched in May 2019, calls for wellbeing training to be enshrined in the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), which sets out internationally-agreed minimum working and living rights for seafarers including minimum age, medical certification, and training qualifications.

The Sailors’ Society director of media and advocacy Melanie Warman told the Telegraph that changing the MLC would be a huge undertaking. 'This is not something that is easy to do. But we are not going to be put off by that. It probably means it is even more important to achieve.'

Stuck in the stone age

Campaigners who want seafarer wellbeing aligned with safety as part of the international regulatory framework see it as both an awareness raising tactic and a baseline for minimum training required.  

'We are still in the stone age when it comes to our approach to mental health crises,' Nautical Institute representative Bridget Hogan told an industry audience at the 2019 Maritime HR Conference in London. 'There are a huge number of people out there who don't get support.'

Ms Hogan says that mental health awareness should be introduced as part of first aid officer training under the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW), 1978.

STCW sets minimum qualification standards for masters, officers and watch personnel on seagoing merchant ships and large yachts. At present the mandatory exercise does not include mental health training for first aid officers.

Mandatory training in mental health awareness under STCW could run in parallel with any initiatives at the International Maritime Organization (IMO), Ms Hogan said. She has floated this idea at several international forums and reported being mocked for 'wanting to turn the first aid officer into a psychologist'.

'The first aid officer doesn't need to perform an appendix operation, but s/he does need to know it's important and needs to get help,' she said.

However, the idea of standardising mental health training falls flat with some wellness campaigners.

Andrew Cowderoy is CEO of the Maritime Wellness Institute and a former seafarer who was deemed unfit for sea due to inflammatory bowel disease that ‘stopped his career before it started’. He told the Maritime HR Conference that in an ideal world every ship would be a well ship that is well cared for and has standard training on mental and physical health – but that every culture has a different way of responding to mental health.

This cultural divide means training should be tailored to individual situations and the cultural diversity onboard, he said.

Speaker Andrew Dudzinski is chairman and CEO of MHG Insurance, which co-published a report into safety conditions aboard superyachts last year, along with the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN) and Inmarsat. He said that the MLC has raised awareness of mental health issues, but it doesn’t solve everything in one go.

Having a command structure onboard in which senior crew members seek the opinions of, and collaborate with, all crew onboard was one significant factor in creating a happy ship, the research found. 'Happy crew make a happy ship,' Mr Dudzinski said.

Enshrining wellness training into regulation would not necessarily combat exterior forces that can affect mental health – cultural isolation, bullying, harassment and poor leadership models can all impact crew wellbeing.

Why are we not measuring the human performance at sea and figuring out what makes a happy crew?

Happy meal

For some, 'wellness' – and the industry it has spawned – is just the latest fad being jumped on by big business to make money. And it does make a lot of money. The Global Wellness Institute, a non-profit association, found in 2018 that the global wellness industry grew by 12.8% from 2015-2017, from a $3.7trn to a $4.2trn market.

Andrew Cowderoy has faced this criticism of profiteering head on and has a different take: 'Wellness can be directly tied into productivity and profits,' he said. 'Taking an offshore vessel off charter for three days to Medivac an ill crew member to hospital costs upwards of $500,000 per day. Do we want seafarers who are overweight – eating high fat, high carb diets putting them at risk of heart disease and stroke?'

Mr Cowderoy would like to see maritime companies including wellness as part of their safety management systems. 'We analyse everything inside our organisations. Shell is measuring the performance of the ship. But without the people onboard, the ship is not going to go anywhere. Why are we not measuring the human performance at sea and figuring out what makes a happy crew?'

There are several commercial operators now offering wellness training as an umbrella term that takes in mental health awareness, physical fitness and healthy eating, among other things.

Others are providing that service for free. Videotel launched a free training package last year on Seafarers’ Mental Health and Wellbeing. Produced in collaboration with ISWAN, it includes a video, facilitator notes, and information booklets on mental health at sea.

'Seafarer mental health and suicide is an epidemic that needs to be urgently addressed,’ KVH Videotel managing editor Raal Harris told the Telegraph.

'We wanted something aimed at the seafarer, to enable them to recognise symptoms in themselves and others, with tips to keep themselves strong mentally and physically. But also, to talk about what to do if they are not feeling well.'

Most managers and crew are being trained very poorly on seafarer mental health, argued Mr Harris at the Maritime HR Conference. 'This is not just a shipping industry thing. None of us would expect to have to deal with these issues in our workplace – I certainly wouldn't feel qualified to counsel anyone through any trauma – yet we're expecting seafarers to do that.

'What I think people have recognised is that we have an epidemic of mental health and in shipping we have exacerbated circumstances which make it more pronounced. There is isolation, there is bullying, and you can't go home at the end of the day and get away from it.'

Connecting the dots

There is yet another debate on how technology and connectivity are changing conditions onboard vessels and the possible effects of this on seafarer mental health and wellbeing.

Like in any shore-based job, workers want to be connected at sea – especially as the ship is also their home. 'Anecdotally we are told that makes the biggest difference to them and their quality of life,' Videotel's Raal Harris told the Telegraph.

Nautilus has campaigned for all seafarers have access to free ‘at home’ internet service at sea – connectivity similar to that enjoyed by those of us who get to go home to loved ones every night – because after all, the ship is the seafarer’s home for many months of the year.

The MLC recommends that reasonable access to ship-to-shore telephone communications, email and internet facilities should be available to seafarers, with any charges for the use of these service being reasonable in amount.

Yet the Union’s 2018 Connectivity at Sea report found that, despite 88% of the 2,000 seafarers we spoke to having internet access at sea, many of these only had a limited service at high cost.

Satellite services provider Inmarsat said costs for internet access at sea are coming down as satellite technology improves and use grows.

Inmarsat conducted a joint research project with the Sailors' Society and Royal Holloway University, which funded a doctoral scientist to go on two Seaspan container ships to look at connectivity. The research found a direct correlation between connectivity and mental health – and that seafarers want more connectivity.

The demand for connectivity from seafarers is such that owners not providing it are having retention issues, according to Mark Warner of Inmarsat: 'People are even giving up careers at sea if they can't get it.'

That chimes with Nautilus's own research, in which nearly two thirds of respondents said they would consider moving company if it provided better onboard connectivity.

Dispelling connectivity myths

There remain several nagging concerns about onboard connectivity and mental health: fear over how connectivity affects socialisation; fear over too much information from home; and fear over fatigue and vessel safety.  

The Union’s own research dispels many of the myths around connectivity onboard. It found that crew not speaking a common language is viewed by seafarers as having the highest impact on social interaction onboard, with crew using personal devices or spending time alone in cabins following closely behind.

The Nautilus research also found that internet connectivity onboard greatly improves the ability to communicate with loved ones back home, thus mitigating the loneliness of being away from home. It makes seafaring more bearable and potentially more attractive as a career.

Recent research by the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), a grouping of national shipowners' associations, backs up the Union’s findings.

The ICS May 2019 survey of 276 shipowners with 11,665 ships found that the benefits associated with internet access onboard outweigh the feared safety concerns around technology. Responses showed that the provision of internet access to seafarers for personal use may have improved the mental health and well-being of seafarers (60%) and the morale of seafarers in the company (69%).  

And a whopping 85% of responding companies reported that seafarer rest and sleep had been unaffected or improved by access to the internet.

Fears over internet access leading to poor work performance were proved unfounded by 96% of companies reporting no deterioration at all. 

'We have a new generation of people going to sea who know nothing else but using the internet. For them not to have access would be impossible,' ICS director of employment affairs Natalie Shaw told the Telegraph.


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