13 Jul 2022
Authored by Simon Doran, HullWiper MD
The world today is accessible to many of us. Only a few hours in the air, on the road or even by rail and we arrive at our destination. In the military it would be a phone call, or a page and “puff” you're gone for how long? Now in civilian street it is a tad more prepared for, but usually after a few days or weeks I find that the best part about a business trip is coming home to my family.
Seafarers are by nature “travellers” whose jobs require them to be away from home for extended periods of time. Crew members play a critical role in ensuring the uninterrupted flow of goods in global trade. We rely on them for the safe transport of food, energy, raw materials, and manufactured goods. They spend months at sea to ensure a ship stays on course – from cleaning the deck, keeping watch, maintaining the vessel’s hull, running gear and equipment to receiving and discharging cargo: from one thousand TUE’s to two hundred tons of sugar, from an LNG cargo to a product.
It's not all plain sailing
The minimum working conditions for seafarer, such as work and rest hours, shore leave, repatriation, health and medical care, are outlined in the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Maritime Labour Convention (MLC, 2006). These rights and conditions were endorsed by 96 ILO member States when, at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak, restrictions at ports around the world resulted in crew being stranded on vessels for months, with very little to no option of going home, and severely constrained working and living conditions. This opened the proverbial pandora’s box to the humanitarian and safety crises that our industry’s essential workers had to endure – but it didn’t start with the pandemic.
A heavy workload is physically and mentally exhausting. Maintaining, running and operating a vessel requires non-stop work. On top of that seafarers often have to contend with unpredictable and harsh weather conditions, potentially hazardous tasks, extreme temperatures, long shifts, little rest and stressful working environments.
I place the health and safety of my employees, and those of our global partners, as one of my top priorities. We have strict measures and processes in place to safeguard their health and safety when performing hull cleans which, to some degree, is in a controlled environment. Even with the most stringent safety policies in place, seafarers have to stay vigilant and think on their feet to avoid severe incidents. Falling from heights, tripping on deck, equipment or mechanical failure (to name a few) all have the potential to lead to serious injuries, sometimes even death.
The high risk of piracy and robbery is also a stark reality for those at sea. Ocean raiders have been part of the shipping landscape for centuries, but their methods and means have evolved with the use of advanced and dangerous weapons which put the lives of crew in serious danger.
Social isolation from family and friends is tough. The emotional turmoil, mental and psychological effects that crew face being away from their loved ones is most likely the hardest thing to deal with. Staying in touch can be difficult if access to Wi-Fi is limited whilst at sea. Loneliness, anxiety and depression can set in as they sail from port to port. Add to this the constant fatigue and the daily hardships of life onboard a ship, there is a common thread to the professional challenges crew members face, and the personal sacrifices that they make.
Adequate rest is essential. In a survey undertaken by ResearchGate, they found that with the high level of fatigue faced by seafarers their accommodation needs to facilitate a sufficient level of comfort to get proper rest. Things we take for granted – such as suitable bed arrangements, temperature, noise levels, space, easy access to amenities – are not always available to crew as conditions vary from ship to ship.
Taking care of our own
Every year, the shipping community celebrates and honours crew members on the 25th of June with the “Day of the Seafarers”. It recognises the important role they play in international trade and the global economy. This year’s theme “Your Voyage – Now and Then” gave them an opportunity to be heard and for us to learn about their journey. The United Nations highlighted that more needs to be done to address the challenges they face – from the expansion of social protection, better working conditions, addressing the crew-change crises to adopting new digital tools to enhance safety and efficiency.
In a move to improve seafarers’ living and working conditions, the global shipping community recently agreed to amend eight MLC 2006 conditions, widely known as the “Seafarers’ Bill of Rights” to include free good quality drinking water, medical care for those in need of immediate assistance and appropriate personal protective equipment.
Knowing the effects that social isolation has on the mental and emotional wellbeing of crew, The Mission to Seafarers launched their WeCare Training Courses for Seafarers which covers financial and social programs. Both courses are aimed at helping seafarers manage life better and improve their mental wellbeing.
Reaching out to someone in times of need takes a lot of courage. The International Seafarers Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN) provides free and confidential assistance to help with problems that crew members may be facing. This service is available 24/7, throughout the year.
A commitment to community
Life at sea is tough and often dangerous. To some, it is a calling, to others, it is borne out of necessity to provide for their families.
It’s easy to forget who our unsung heroes are in everyday life, mostly out of sight out of mind, but sitting in your office with a cup of coffee at hand, or sat at the dinner table with the family, just take a moment to think who your unsung heroes are in everyday life.