According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), it is estimated that 90% of all international trade uses maritime transport. In the wake of recent events – collisions and accidents, it is imperative that the safety of seafarers is looked at closely and appropriate actions are taken.
The main issues plaguing seafarers are exploitation and abuse due to non-payment of wages, non-compliance with contracts, exposure to poor diet and living conditions, abandonment at foreign ports (as per the database of the ILO, over 270 cases of abandonment have been reported since 2004) and refusal of rights of compensation in case of death or long-term disability due to an occupational injury, illness or hazard.
Because of the afore-mentioned reasons, the following events have taken place:
- In July, the European Commission issued a Press Release entitled, “Seafarers: Measures to Improve Working Conditions”. The European Commission is proposing to incorporate an agreement between social partners to improve the working conditions of seafarers on board EU-flagged vessels in EU law. The proposal will ensure that seafarers are better protected against abandonment in foreign ports in the future, and will strengthen their rights to compensation in the event of death or long-term disability due to an occupational injury, illness or hazard. “Maritime transport remains crucial for Europe’s economic development. Today’s proposal will strengthen seafarers’ protection and underpin fair competition in the maritime sector,” Marianne Thyssen, Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility, said. “Improved working conditions will also make the shipping sector more attractive for young Europeans. This proposal is an excellent example of how social partners support the Commission in keeping EU law fit for purpose,” Thyssen added. The proposal will improve seafarers’ protection in the event of abandonment, including when the ship owner fails to pay contractual wages for a period of at least two months, or when the ship owner has left the seafarer without the necessary maintenance and support to execute ship operations. The proposal will also improve the mechanisms by which compensation is provided. This will make the payment of claims quicker and easier, which will help avoid the long delays in payment and red tape that seafarers or their families frequently encounter in case of abandonments or in case of death or long-term disability resulting from accidents or illness at work. “This will not only benefit seafarers themselves, but also all EU port authorities, as it will result in fewer problematic cases of abandonment,” the European Commission informed.
- In order to improve the welfare and safety of seafarers, The International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN) and the Confidential Hazardous Incident Reporting Programme (CHIRP Maritime) entered into a Memorandum of Understanding to work together. The charity intends to be of service to seafarers whose first language is not English. ISWAN will offer assistance to seafarers with regard to completing initial reports about unsafe working practices in order for CHIRP to highlight these. Early this month, to supplement its 24/7 helpline, ISWAN released a self-help guide for seafarers’ mental health. CHIRP will communicate with seafarers and enquire if they want to be put in touch with ISWAN’s SeafarerHelp team as they are regularly confronted with employment and personal problems of seafarers. If so, a SeafarerHelp officer will contact the seafarer to offer assistance and counselling if necessary. It has been reported that suicide rates among seafarers have more than tripled since 2014. They are now the most common cause of death at sea, according to figures from the UK P&I Club. CHIRP and ISWAN are confident that by working together, they can place highest priority on seafarers’ safety and welfare.
- Horizon Project – This EU sponsored research project was a joint venture between Warsash Maritime Academy (Southampton Solent University), Chalmers Tekniska Hoegskola AB (Department of Shipping and Marine Technology (Sweden), the Stress Research Institute of Stockholm University, together with eight other participant companies and authorities. This research studied how the different watch systems have influenced the levels of fatigue or sleepiness, both of deck and engine room watchkeeping officers. The simulation research involving many runs of seven day, realistic voyage scenarios was completed in 2011. The findings of the research indicated that special attention needs to be paid to: ■ the risks in passages through difficult waters in combination with the 6-on/6-off watch system (because of sleep loss) ■ night watches ■ the last portion of most watches (especially night watches) ■ watches after reduced sleep opportunity ■ individual susceptibility to fatigue also needs to be considered. The suggested ‘special attention’ may involve alarm systems to alert crew before important changes of course, alerting devices, encouragement not to use chairs on the bridge during night watches, additional crew, special protection of sleep periods for watchkeepers, or no work apart from watchkeeping. In addition, mathematical models (MARTHA) can be used to predict which portions of a particular voyage may be critical from a fatigue point of view and thereby, mitigating action can be planned ahead of time. One way of reducing risks related to fatigue may also be to train the crew in the causes and prediction of fatigue, its risks, how to detect it, how to prevent it and how to report it. The latter requires a level of acceptance of fatigue reports without reprisals for those in authority. Personal fatigue countermeasures include caffeine, strategic napping and physical or mental activity. Judicial use of countermeasures against fatigue should be part of the job description for all personnel on watch duty. Project Horizon is the first detailed and experimental study of fatigue at sea. There is a clear need for replicating the present study at sea and to carry out studies of long periods at sea.
In conclusion, in order to assure proper protection for seafarers and smooth sailing for shipowners and operators in this truly global industry, correct safety measures are imperative.