There are currently 400,000 seafarers stuck at sea, according to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), due to government’s travel restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Another 400,000 are unable to join ships and earn money. Despite lobbying by the IMO and other major shipping organisations, many governments have yet to declare seafarers as key workers to facilitate crew change. Other countries, such as Australia, have declared crew as key workers but seafarers face complicated regional travel restrictions that still make crew change difficult.

Some have now been on board vessels for 17 months with no break or time ashore, far over the 11-month contract limit set out in the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC). Onshore staff also face local restrictions and changes to their working lives during the pandemic. All of these stresses and strains will surely have an impact on crew and shore staff’s physical and mental wellbeing. The maritime industry should expect these issues to go on long after the COVID-19 pandemic. To help provide the maritime industry with lessons on how it can improve its response to the pandemic now and in the future, Lloyd’s Register (LR) launched an industry-wide survey on 25 June 2020 to evaluate the impact of COVID-19 on maritime workforce wellbeing and operational practice.

Sixty-six per cent of the respondents to the survey were shore staff, while 34% were sea staff. Slightly more than half of the shore staff (56%) said they were back in the office and 42% were working from home, and on average they had 80 days of COVID-19 extended leave. Meanwhile,40% of ship staff were at sea on a planned contract whereas 33% were at sea on a COVID-19 extended contract, unable to leave the ship or get home. This lasted for 75 days on average. Other ship staff (11%) said they were off contract on planned leave; another 11% were off contract, repatriated from a COVID-19 extended contract; and 4% said they were off contract due to extended COVID-19 leave, unable to join a ship, and reported this lasted on average 150 days.

Responses came from all maritime sectors, with most from dry bulk carriers (17%), tankers (16%), and container ships (8%). Most responses came from the United Kingom (17%), India (13%), Greece (9%), and Australia (9%). What was clear from the survey is that when it comes to wellbeing, ship staff are the ones hardest hit by COVID-19. LR asked respondents to rate how strongly they agreed with a range of statements on their health and wellbeing. Ship staff more often responded ‘strongly disagree’, ‘disagree’, or ‘somewhat disagree’ to the statements. For example, 11% of ship staff said they strongly disagreed with the statement “I am able to focus on tasks at hand” compared with 6% of shore staff. Meanwhile, 20% of ship staff strongly disagreed with “I woke up today feeling rested” as opposed to 11% for shore staff, and 16% strongly disagreed with the statement “I feel happy and in good spirits” while 8% of shore staff strongly disagreed with this.

Ship staff were more negative about their situation across the board, with workload and fatigue, quality and variety of food, and lack of exercise all areas of concern. Maintaining good mental and physical health requires a holistic approach with a good diet, exercise, rest, and support mechanisms needed to feel positive, healthy, and happy. Unsurprisingly, given ship staff’s negative responses in these areas, they did not have a positive outlook on their situation or the work they are carrying out. Only 13% of ship staff strongly agreed that they are performing an essential role during the pandemic, and just 8% strongly agreed they feel valued in their role. It is not hard to see a possible link between ship staff’s current crew change plight and their views on how essential they are. One crew member respondent wrote they felt “abandoned by my own government”. Another wrote, “We work for each and every one of you to have food, water, fuel, cars, etc. We need support in this tough time, but we were forgotten and abandoned by everybody”.

Joanne Stokes, principal human factors consultant, human factors manager, marine, LR, noted that the IMO, the International Labour Organisation (ILO), and the International Civil Aviation Organisation issued a joint statement on the designation of seafarers and air personnel as key workers on 22 May 2020. As of mid-August, 42 countries recognised seafarers as key workers. “For the rest of the countries to do so, there is a need for further political and public pressure to be placed on the remaining countries,” she said.

Ben Bailey, director of advocacy, The Mission to Seafarers (MtS), also noted the “patchy” response from the international community on crew change. “We praise the herculean efforts of many ship managers who have had to navigate bureaucratic minefields to effect crew changes,” he said. “But the fact that so many countries have yet to designate seafarers as key workers suggests that they have lost the sense of urgency to support those who keep them in the lifestyles to which they are accustomed”.

There have been some positive developments too, with Bailey relaying stories of senior company directors phoning crew directly to keep them informed and to offer support. “These efforts need to be communicated to seafarers directly so that they know they’re not alone and that all parts of the industry are fighting for them,” he added. Tim Springett, policy director, UK Chamber of Shipping, gave a strong message to governments that continue to restrict the movement of crew, “They will face civil repercussions domestically when supply chains are disrupted, and it is visible to the consumer. The most prominent example being diminished medical supplies and gaps on supermarket shelves.” He said it would be ideal if companies that rely on international trade by sea could visibly support the efforts to publicise the crew change crisis and push for key worker status to show how vital seafarers are to governments.

Company care

The LR survey also asked respondents about how their organisation has supported them throughout the pandemic. Perhaps surprisingly more ship staff (50%) said they had access to a professional person through their job that can provide personal advice and support, such as a counsellor or welfare officer, compared with 32% of shore staff. Despite the higher ship staff percentage, the ratio of uptake was not dissimilar: 30% of shore staff used professional services and 17% of shore staff took advantage of the help. Reasons ship staff gave for not seeking help was the stigma surrounding mental health and concerns it could hurt their employment. Others said they felt there was no need to, that they had support from their family or, worryingly, that they did not think it would be effective.

There are measures that maritime organisations can put in place to better support their staff’s wellbeing, including, as Springett advised, distributing the information of other organisations, seafarer charities, and more general mental health charities that provide confidential support. The UK Chamber of Shipping has free a guideline, Guidelines to shipping companies on mental health awareness, that can be downloaded online for shipping companies to create a seafarer mental welfare policy.

Meanwhile, Stokes said to tackle the stigma around mental wellbeing within the maritime industry, “tailored communications, initiatives, and training” should be provided for seafarers and shore staff, for employees and managers alike. This could include:

• Providing a mental health first aider training for a group of employees
• Providing regular updates on the importance of mental and physical wellbeing
• Providing e-learning about mental wellbeing
• Providing more posters, flashes to increase awareness of mental wellbeing
• Posting all the free and confidential mental wellbeing helplines on board ships
• Creating a video/podcast campaign to include seafarers talking about their own mental health, and company CEOs talking about its importance

Meanwhile, Bailey said the seafarer charity is promoting the idea of “mental health champions” on board every ship so that seafarers have access to resources which “empower them to make positive decisions about their own mental health and wellbeing”. MtS sees this as a precursor to mandating mental health training as part of the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers code. “The issue should be given as much importance as firefighting and basic first aid,” said Bailey.

The right message

The LR survey also found that respondents, particularly ship staff, noted issues with their organisation’s communication. Nineteen per cent of ship staff strongly disagreed that their company answers staff questions and concerns quickly and in full, compared with 12% of shore staff. Meanwhile, 15% of ship staff strongly disagreed that the company effectively communicates the reasons behind any COVID-19-related actions taken, compared with 11% for shore staff. Furthermore, 18% said they strongly disagreed that actions are taken promptly when wellbeing concerns are raised, compared with 13% of shore staff. This could well be behind a differing perception from sea to shore over how their organisations are handling the wellbeing crisis: 17% of ship staff strongly disagree their organisation is handling the crisis well, compared with 10% of shore staff.

Respondents commented that company communication varied, with some stating it had been slow to start but that regular communications from senior managers had become more regular, while others wrote highly critical reviews. One such review stated, “Communication could not have been worse. Most of the time, there is no communication. People are left to gossip on social media to try and figure out company policies or crew change dates. What little official communication there is haphazard, contradictory, fragmented, illogical, and selectively distributed. It’s a huge mess.” Regardless whether the comments were positive or negative, the resounding message was that companies could be doing more to better communicate to their staff, especially those at sea.

Springett did sound a note of logic to these issues, stating that companies are not always able to access reliable information that they can pass onto their crew and do not want to make false promises, especially regarding repatriation. “In our experience with companies, they are trying to go the extra mile to keep crew and families informed,” he added. Bailey echoed Springett’s comments that the industry has done the best it can to keep families and loved ones updated, given the unprecedented situation but that there would be “lessons to learn”. On a practical note, Stokes said there are multiple methods for companies to ensure communication is improved. It should not necessarily mean upping the rate of communications but rather on improving the quality. “It is important that the company takes time to explain why decisions are being made and what these are based on. This does not have to be an in-depth explanation, but needs to enable seafarers to feel they are being treated fairly, and their welfare has been considered. Also, that the logic behind the decision is well thought out for everyone’s benefit,” said Stokes. “The company needs to bring employees with them on the journey, not make the employee feel that it is being done to them.”

Stokes suggested soft skills training could be implemented for those responsible for communicating key messages. Furthermore, she said that companies should take responsibility to provide regular updates regarding the COVID-19 precautions being taken, the measures that are in place, and what they are doing to embark and disembark crew members safely. This could be clearly published on the website and sent in newsletters to families. “Importantly, individual crew members should be able to freely communicate with their family, with no impedance from limited bandwidth at sea,” Stokes concluded.

Being able to communicate with loved ones during this time is vital for crew morale and wellbeing, but the LR survey shows there is room for improvement here. Thirteen per cent of ship staff strongly disagreed that internet connections enable them to talk to friends and family, and worryingly 19% strongly disagreed that internet connections enable them to complete work tasks. This is compared with 6% and 7% respectively for shore staff. This should be a time when maritime organisations consider upping the Wi-Fi allowance for vessels, and many have done so. However, some respondents have had a different experience. “Access to decent internet and phone would significantly relieve the stress and fatigue that seafarers are now burdened with,” one respondent wrote. “However, the company has in fact lowered the bandwidth available and not all crew have access to computers. Wi-Fi must be made available for all.”

Disease management and treatment

Of those asked, 5% said there had been a confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19 on their vessel or in their place of work. A further 1% said they had received a positive COVID-19 diagnosis. “I myself tested positive for COVID-19. Out of a crew of 95, almost one-third of the crew tested positive. Many of those of certain nationalities where then fired after recovering,” one respondent wrote. When asked how they felt about going back to work after being diagnosed and undergoing quarantine, a seafarer wrote, “There was no support from [my company]. Not one email asking how I was. I was left in a Brazilian hotel room for three weeks. Not allowed out of the room and given three meals a day with very little choice. I had no access to Wi-Fi, tv, or phone services.”

Of course, these are anecdotal responses and there are many maritime companies getting it right and looking after their staff well during and after quarantine. However, such anecdotes are still cause for concern. Stokes noted it would be useful if the ILO updates the MLC regulation to define the responsibilities of companies during quarantine periods to make sure seafarers are treated fairly. Anyone returning to work after a long break or illness must be supported by its company. However, Stokes said that a phased return to work was not possible for seafarers.

Therefore, consideration must be given to those returning to sea as fatigue levels will likely be higher in the first few weeks. Propensity for human error will also likely be higher, suggested Stokes, so additional support or hours off should be considered. “Perhaps doubling manpower for a short period or increasing handover durations would support this transition, where cabin space and social distancing allows,” she said, adding that these measures can also support those crew on COVID-19 extended contracts by shortening their work hours for the last two weeks.

Quarantine measures should be in place for embarking crew to avoid them contracting COVID-19, she added. Unfortunately, at the time of writing there is little sign of the pandemic easing off any time soon, nor the stresses or strains for seafarers or those onshore tasked with supporting them. This is why it is vital for maritime to continually review its response and act swiftly on the feedback from its staff and surveys like LR’s to ensure that it can responsibly and ethically continue to operate.

Source: Hellenic Shipping