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Hazards, number 152, 2020
SAFETY AT SEA | Seafarers at risk – hidden, vital and still at sea
New research has identified “systemic failures” in the implementation of the regulatory regime protecting seafarers’ hours of work and rest, undermining the credibility of international regulations relating to working hours. It’s a crisis now exacerbated by the Covid pandemic, which has seen hundreds of thousands trapped at sea.


A culture of adjustment’, a report from a team at the World Maritime University (WMU), confirms previous research that suggested malpractices are widespread, which seriously undermines the capacity of the regulatory framework intended to prevent fatigue and mitigate its effects.

The analysis indicates that insufficient staffing is the root cause of violations, especially during peak workload conditions. The fear of the negative consequences of failing inspections and creating problems for shipping companies was found to outweigh the obligation to genuinely comply with international regulations.

The research found requirements for reporting work and rest hours are seen by seafarers as a paper exercise. Additionally, software intended to support recordkeeping seems ‘gamed’ for compliance. Instead of improving accuracy, the system effectively incentivises crew to adjust their records.

According to Dr Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry, president of the WMU: “It is well known that fatigue leads to adverse impacts on health and wellbeing as well as increasing the risks of maritime accidents. This report is a wake-up call to regulators, industry and seafarers themselves. The system is flawed with respect to implementation and needs serious attention!”

Dave Heindel, chair of the ITF Seafarers’ Trust, which financed the research, commented: “The findings are devastatingly comprehensive. Now the onus in on flag states, ports states, industry and unions to come together for the benefit of the seafarers to facilitate cultural change and restore the credibility of international maritime regulations.”

The global transport unions’ federation ITF says seafarers have been hit particularly hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, facing a crew change crisis, trapped onboard by travel restrictions, a lack of flights and quarantine requirements. Around 400,000 seafarers are still stuck at sea, some for over 18 months.

Following pressure from ITF, the United Nations General Assembly in November and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in December 2020 passed landmark resolutions calling for urgent action by national governments on the crew change crisis.

ITF general secretary Stephen Cotton said: “We now have the full authority of the United Nations General Assembly saying that if countries want to participate in the global economy, then they must recognise this global workforce as ‘key workers’ with practical effect.

“Key worker status means letting seafarers get off in their ports for medical attention. It means letting them get to an airport to fly home and return to their families when their contract on a ship is completed. It means letting replacement crews through a country’s border to join those waiting ships.”

The ITF, which represents more than a million seafarers through its affiliated seafaring unions, has been working behind the scenes with governments and UN agencies to secure the resolutions.

“The global movement to recognise that seafarers need travel, transit and border exemptions and practical quarantine rules, is gaining momentum. Governments are starting to realise that they need to act now if they want to avoid being blamed for this pressing humanitarian – and potentially economic – crisis.

“The heat is on,” said Cotton.


Seafarers picture their working lives

Throughout the Covid pandemic, an unseen workforce has kept the global community afloat, delivering vital raw materials and essential goods such as food, medicine and personal protective clothing. Denied shore leave and access to medical treatment, many are facing physical and mental health challenges. The ITF Seafarers’ Trust ‘Still At Sea’ photography competition allows seafarers to give us a glimpse of their often hazardous lives at sea.


Nino Jay Sosmena that this photo was taken after a long stay in port. After everything was ready for him to go home, the situation suddenly changed, the flight was cancelled, and he had to remain on board.


Charlie Canoy Jr showed his vessel’s main engine piston ring being renewed. He said: “We are the frontliners at sea all over the world, far from home, facing the perils at sea, doing our jobs and risking our safety during this pandemic crisis just to give our family a better future”.


Celso Cagaanan’s photograph show the impact the pandemic has had on normal on-board safety protocols. Celso said that due to the pandemic his company requires newly signed-on crew to be isolated from the rest of the crew for 14 days after joining. However, this conflicts with the flag and SOLAS regulations, which state that new crew should be familiarized with all aspects of the vessel within that period. This image shows the crew working around this during a rescue boat drill, with two crew wearing masks to keep everyone safe from a potential infection.


This image from Febron Michael Fernandes provides another illustration of the hazards faced by crews. Here a fitter is seen mounting a new navigation light on the mast, the highest point on the ship, as the weather starts to build up.


Alan U Mira took this photo on his first ever voyage, on a newly built woodchip carrier, in the Port of Coos Bay, Oregon, USA. He said: “I’m so scared of the invisible Covid-19 pandemic and USA is one of the top countries [for] Covid- 19 cases, so we need to protect ourselves.”


Pham van thuong’s picture shows a body temperature check being conducted by local heath staff.


Maria Cristina Macalalad said: “These are my friends from the deck department, de-rusting the guest cabin windows with the complete details in safety. The Jacob ladder, life ring, safety harness and flying stage. In this time of pandemic our life at sea is risky also playing different roles in every department at the stage of work. For all the seafarers onboard the show must go on.”


The photograph from Rey B Tompong Jr shows an on-board drill, to practice what they would need to do if a crew member contracted Covid and had to be air lifted off the ship by helicopter.


Franz Mikko Indaya Dapol took this photograph at 1am, while these crew members were on standby at the forward station for docking. He said: “We could stand being restless, just to assure our families lying in the bed of roses!”


Franz Mikko Indaya Dapol is pictured cleaning the cargo hold. He said: “It was indeed tiring, yet I consider myself as one of the luckiest during this crisis.”


Warren Quejado’s image of a worn out pair of safety shoes illustrates how long many seafarers have been on board, far beyond the end of their normal contracts, and how worn out they feel. He said: “Surviving the extended journey onboard - these safety shoes are like the seafarer who once wore them, exhausted and worn out, but stayed committed to his work and finished it with pride”.


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New research has identified “systemic failures” in the implementation of the regulatory regime protecting seafarers’ hours of work and rest, undermining the credibility of international regulations relating to working hours. It’s a crisis now exacerbated by the Covid pandemic, which has seen hundreds of thousands trapped at sea.

ITF Seafarers’ Trust
World Maritime University 

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