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General safety and working practices for ship crew

Working practices

Working practices

With regard to general safety, there are four areas that regularly feature as the causes of accidents on board ships that have led to an official investigation. These are mooring and unmooring, working at height, hot work and entry into enclosed spaces.

Training and drills are the best means of improving safety in these areas and there is no shortage of advice from P&I clubs and training specialists and from training films that can be used to good advantage in a training regime.

Mooring and unmooring is a regular task and one where safety is learnt rather than managed, although experienced hands should not be averse to pointing out risky practices to less experienced staff. The other three main causes of accidents can best be addressed by a permit to work system where a risk identification process is carried out before any work begins.

It might be hoped that deaths and injuries could be all but eliminated but unfortunately there are reasons why this is not happening. Some of those lie with seafarers themselves and some with the operators of the ships they are sailing upon. While some seafarers will have long careers with a single company or ship, many more are happy just to obtain employment on any ship. Building a team spirit and working within and contributing to the development of a safety culture does help many seafarers to think about safety when commencing daily tasks.

For those that move from ship to ship, the safety procedures on any vessel – if they exist – do not come so naturally and seafarers will try to work in the ways that suits them best even if that can cause problems for themselves and others. Such seafarers tend to be self-reliant and sometimes impetuous.

Mental health

Mental health

Shipping has long been considered among the most dangerous industries for workers both onboard and those working alongside the ship on shore, such as dock workers and port service personnel. In recent years, the influence of the International Safety Management

(ISM) Code appears to have improved the culture around safety onboard to the point where the number of lives lost at sea according to IMO statistics continues to show a downward trend.

The figures are not necessarily a fully accurate picture of individual cases because many will not be reported but it is accepted that there has been a reduction. On the downside, some believe that while the number of deaths may show an improvement, some of this could be due to the fact that crew numbers are now much smaller than they used to be.

Sadly, the main cause of seafarer deaths – 15% at the last count – is now said to be suicide. Training and drills can obviously help with improving general safety as does adopting best practices but dealing with suicide and other mental illness on a fleet basis will require operators to seek help from other than traditional sources.

The issue of mental health is one that is only just beginning to attract the attention it probably deserves. There are few studies that can point to the main cause of mental health issues, but some have speculated that smaller crew numbers and a lack of team spirit may be one factor. Another factor is the sense of isolation in an increasingly connected world, although some believe that continuous access to family through telecommunications and the internet can also have a negative effect as bad news from home is more easily received. A small number of official investigations into accidents and incidents at sea has blamed distraction of officers and crew by sudden news from home.

Medical facilities

Medical facilities

Although intended for more day-to-day matters, medical facilities and specialist skills are also likely to be needed when an emergency occurs. Provision of medical facilities on board and the appropriate level will be set by flag states for any above those required under IMO and ILO regulations. Most cargo ships have a small space set aside for medical treatment and some may have quite well-equipped sick rooms.

Passenger vessels and offshore ships that have large numbers of personnel and guests onboard will likely have to have a dedicated hospital facility and most flag states stipulate that above a certain number of persons onboard, a qualified medical practitioner must be employed.

Ships are obliged to carry limited stocks of medicines and equipment and some form of medical guide that can be used for advice in emergencies. The exact details of what must be carried are at the discretion of the flag state. Flag states that do not have national requirements for the contents of the medical chest have in the past relied on a list that has been provided by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in the International Medical Guide for Ships (IMGS).

It is not a formal international instrument, but the guide is noted as a source of information in the non-statutory part of the relevant ILO convention. Port state control inspectors frequently use the IMGS list as the minimum requirement for medical supplies.

A companion publication to IMGS entitled Medical first aid guide for use in accidents involving dangerous goods (MFAG) is published by the IMO and gives specialist advice for substances considered dangerous goods and included in the IMO’s IMDG Code. The guide contains information on symptoms, treatment and care and is considered an essential requirement on most ships.

Almost every flag will either make mandatory requirements or recommend a general medical guide that should be carried onboard, but it is most important that the crew member who is appointed to carry out any medical procedures is able to understand the terminology used in the guide and the language it is written in. For this reason, blind adherence to recommendations of a particular guide that is not available in the appropriate language may satisfy PSC but could prove dangerous in a medical emergency.

Except on passenger vessels and a very few merchant ships, access to a qualified medical practitioner will be very limited. The first aid and limited medical training that is needed under STCW for various ranks is all that most sick and injured crew can expect unless or until the ship is in port or close enough to land for more expert medical assistance to be given.

With the advance in marine communications, it is now possible to subscribe to a small number of specialist telemedicine services that give access at any time to the expertise of trained doctors.

ILO Maritime Labour Convention 2006

The subject of medical facilities on board ships is not actually contained within SOLAS but has been a matter for the flag states to regulate. With the coming into force of the ILO Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) 2006 in 2013 many of the aspects relating to medical facilities are now contained within that convention.

Where the flag state’s regulations go beyond those contained in the convention they will continue to apply and will be enforced by the flag state. In cases where the regulations applied by the flag state do not meet the convention requirements, it is likely that port state control enforcement will ensure that the convention requirements will apply when the ship is operating internationally.

There are two sections of MLC 2006 where medical matters are covered these are sections 3 and 4 of the main text. Section 3 covers accommodation and facilities and in this section the requirements for the ship’s hospital are laid down. As things stand, much of the text of the convention contains guidelines rather than prescriptive requirements. Each Member shall adopt laws and regulations establishing requirements for on-board hospital and medical care facilities and equipment and training on ships that fly its flag. National laws and regulations shall as a minimum provide for all ships to carry a medicine chest, medical equipment and a medical guide, the specifics of which shall be prescribed and subject to regular inspection by

the competent authority. The national requirements must take into account the type of ship, the number of persons on board and the nature, destination and duration of voyages and relevant national and international recommended medical standards; Ships carrying 100 or more persons and ordinarily engaged on international voyages of more than three days’ duration must carry a qualified medical doctor who is responsible for providing medical care and national laws or regulations shall also specify which other ships shall be required to carry a medical doctor, taking into account, inter alia, such factors as the duration, nature and conditions of the voyage and the number of seafarers on board; Ships which do not carry a medical doctor are required to have either at least one seafarer on board who is in charge of

medical care and administering medicine as part of their regular duties or at least one seafarer on board competent to provide medical first aid; persons in charge of medical care on board who are not medical doctors shall have satisfactorily completed training in medical care that meets the requirements of STCW. National laws or regulations shall specify the level of approved training required taking into

account such factors as the duration, nature and conditions of the voyage and the number of seafarers on board. Flag states also have an obligation to ensure by a prearranged system that medical advice by radio or satellite communication to ships at sea, including specialist advice, is available 24 hours a day. The advice and the cost of transmitting it must be available free of charge to all ships irrespective of the flag that they fly.

Noise and vibration

Another impact of the MLC 2006 is that there is now international regulation covering noise and vibration on board ships. Noise has an obvious health impact being a cause of premature deafness but reducing noise levels also improves safety onboard. A non-mandatory noise code has been in existence since 1981 but some aspects have become obligatory.

SOLAS regulation II-1/3-12 adopted in 2012 at MSC91 came into force in June 2014 and requires new ships contracted after that date to be constructed in a way that reduces onboard noise. The limits are in accordance with the revised Code on noise levels on board ships (now widely known as the Noise Code), also adopted at MSC91, which sets out mandatory maximum noise level limits for machinery spaces, control rooms, workshops, accommodation and other spaces.

Unless a flag state approves any exemptions for individual ships, the Noise Code applies to ships of 1,600gt and above for which the building contract was placed on or after 1 July 2014; or, in the absence of a building contract, the keels of which are laid or are at a similar stage of construction on or after 1 January 2015; or the delivery of which is on or after 1 July 2018.

The rules go on to address vessels for which keels were laid (or at similar stage of construction) on or after 1 July 2009 but before 1 January 2015, and were delivered before 1 July 2018, by stating measures in accordance with the Noise Code shall be taken to reduce noise in machinery spaces to an acceptable level as determined by their flag state.

Where noise levels cannot be reduced, then the rules say that the source of noise shall be suitably insulated or isolated, or a refuge from the noise provided. The regulation further states that ear protectors shall be provided for personnel entering such spaces. The level of noise allowed under the Noise Code for different areas is;

  • Engine workshop 85 dB(A)
  • Engine control room 75 dB(A)
  • Main engine room 110 dB(A)
  • Wheel and chart room 65 dB(A)
  • Communication room 60 dB(A)
  • Inside cabins and sickroom 55dB(A)
  • Mess room 60dB(A)
  • Gymnasium 60dB(A)
  • Office 60dB(A)
  • Kitchen 75 dB(A)

The levels apply during operations and measured under normal sailing condition with the main engines operating at service speed (not less than 80%MCR). Controllable pitch and Voith-Schneider propellers, if any, shall be in the normal seagoing position.

The IMO has asked flag states to consider extending the rules to older ships built before the deadlines or taking other remedial action such as:

  • Providing instruction in the hazard of noise exposure and the risk of hearing loss at initial employment and periodically thereafter.
  • Providing warning signs at all entrances to spaces exceeding a noise level of 85dB(A) and making entry to such areas controlled.
  • Providing warning information where hand tools, galley equipment or other portable equipment exceeds 85dB(A) in normal working conditions.
  • Providing effective hearing protection on an individual basis.
  • Providing a Hearing Conservation Plan for seafarers exposed to high levels of noise and that no expense is incurred by the seafarer.


As well as mental health being a problem, so too is fatigue. Fatigue has probably been on the radar for longer than mental health as an issue to be tackled but most would say that too little has been done.

The causes of fatigue can be many: long hours and odd shift patterns, smaller crew numbers, increased bureaucratic workloads, shorter port turnaround times meaning longer at sea and little rest. In addition, ease of communication can mean that some seafarers spend more time on smart phones and computers than they do resting.

IMO has considered the issue of fatigue for several decades, adopting Assembly resolution A.772(18), Fatigue Factors in Manning and Safety, in 1993. This was followed by the development of comprehensive guidance on fatigue mitigation and management (MSC/Circ.1014), which was issued in 2001. The guidelines have been thoroughly reviewed and updated by the Sub-Committee on Human Element, Training and Watchkeeping (HTW 5), taking into account the latest research studies.

At MSC 100 in December 2018, the MSC approved revised guidelines on fatigue, which provide comprehensive information on the causes and consequences of fatigue and the risks it poses to the safety and health of seafarers, operational safety, security and protection of the marine environment. The aim is to assist all stakeholders to contribute to the mitigation and management of fatigue.

While it has taken nearly two decades to update the guidelines on fatigue, they are still guidelines, and some are sceptical of them being widely applied across the industry.

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