Safety at Sea

Staying safe and keeping well

Paul Gunton
Paul Gunton

14 March 2019

Staying safe and keeping well

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 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.