A LOSS PREVENTION PERSPECTIVE ON SEAFARERS’ WORK AND WELFARE DURING CORONAVIRUS (COVID-19)

Published: September 26, 2020

Neale Rodrigues

Seafarers are facing increased demands on their workloads due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic . COVID-19 has had a serious impact on the way we all work and live, with lockdowns and working remotely the new norm. It has also adversely disrupted the lives and working environment of the approximately 2 million seafarers around the world who as a result need our help and support to overcome the challenges.

Dealing with the pandemic on board has not been easy. Seafarers already have very stressful roles and the extra work involved, including acquiring and wearing appropriate PPE, keeping the ship appropriately sanitised and trying to maintain social distancing, have added to their already high stress levels.

Crew are being expected to perform extra duties, due to the fact that some of the tasks which are normally performed by specialists e.g. stevedores and port officials etc., are no longer possible due to quarantine related restrictions. This additional responsibility often requires additional risk assessments, with appropriate management oversight,  as well as new procedures and safe working practice guidelines.

MARITIME LABOUR CONVENTION (MLC) 2006

The Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) 2006 was put in place to set out seafarers’ rights to decent conditions of work regarding safety, their health and well-being and other forms of social protection.

MLC 2006 also sets out the maximum duration of service periods on board for crew, currently no longer than 12 months, after which a seafarer is entitled to repatriation. It also stipulates the statutory minimum paid annual leave, which equates to 30 days per year.  Therefore, according to MLC 2006, the maximum time a seafarer should serve on board is 11 months before being entitled to take one month of paid annual leave. Under the MLC, flag States also have a responsibility towards the right of seafarers to be repatriated and Port States have an obligation to facilitate such repatriation as well as the replacement of seafarers.

HAVING TO STAY ON BOARD BEYOND THAT PERIOD IS DIFFICULT TO DEAL WITH, MENTALLY AND PHYSICALLY

At the time of writing, there are around 200,000 seafarers working beyond their contract durations and waiting for repatriation.

From the author’s experience, when you join a ship, whether on a 2 month or an 11 month contract, the mindset is geared toward that contracted period, and as you come towards the end of the contract, you prepare yourself for signing off and going home. Having to stay onboard beyond that period is difficult to deal with, mentally and physically.

The May 2020 edition of Britannia Crew Watch provided guidance and advice to seafarers on how to protect themselves and others, and maintain their mental health during this pandemic. This practical advice, on a number of technical issues arising from the pandemic, is set out below.

SURVEYS

Remote classification and statutory surveys are now being undertaken by Classification Society and Flag state surveyors who are unable to attend a ship due to travel restrictions. To conduct these surveys, ship-staff, primarily senior officers, are required to provide pictures, videos and reports on the areas being assessed. There are, however, concerns regarding the quality of information that will be provided, particularly whether issues or items may be missed or misrepresented. Guidance about remote survey requirements and associated responsibilities has been recommended and discussed.

SOCIAL DISTANCING

Advice has been issued to seafarers concerned about lack of PPE and social distancing protocols from some pilots and port officials. In some countries, stevedores stay onboard a ship for the entire cargo operation, often with their families, and this can amount to up to 50 additional persons on board. Ship staff have therefore been advised on the need to establish new safe working protocols appropriate for working in close proximity with third parties joining the ship for a limited time, as well as defining safe working and “No Access” areas.

FUMIGATION

Due to COVID-19, the approved fumigator has not been able to go on board to conduct the operation, and ship-staff have therefore been asked to undertake this task instead.

A pre-requisite for permitting this operation is obtaining permission from local biosecurity and port state authorities, as well as the flag state, and local / crew labour authorities.

Masters and the responsible crew must be provided with all the necessary training and equipment, and must be made aware of all associated hazards. It must also be ensured that if the responsible crew are not satisfied with the training or equipment, then they are not compelled to carry out tasks such as in-transit fumigation.

TANKER OPERATIONS

Tanker operations have been modified to reduce face to face interactions in order to minimise infection. Safety and pre cargo checks and pre-operation documentation is now exchanged via email, and ship to shore checklists and agreements are also completed remotely.

Shore-based staff are often restricted from boarding the ship to connect the cargo hoses, so crew now have to connect cargo hoses, conduct a pressure test and verify line integrity. Cargo samples are also taken by the crew and left for shore surveyors to collect. This may have an impact if there are any disputes about cargo quality, as the independent surveyors and experts (who would normally be appointed by the Club) are unable to go on board to assist Members.

RESPONSIBILITY

In all the above cases, it is also important to remember that the Master is ultimately responsible for the integrity and safety of all persons and operations on board, and must be provided with the required guidance and support.

Prior to commencement of any task or cargo operation, a full risk assessment should be conducted, and the work should only commence, or continue, when the responsible officer, and the master, is satisfied with all operational arrangements and checks. Risk monitoring shall be carried out at regular intervals whilst the operation is underway, and a final risk assessment and review of the operation conducted on completion. This should be documented and filed ashore and on board.

SHIPPING COMPANY OFFICES NEED TO KEEP THEIR COLLEAGUES AT SEA UPDATED IN WHAT IS AN EVER-CHANGING ENVIRONMENT. GIVING CREW AS MUCH INFORMATION AS POSSIBLE, EVEN IF THE FULL PICTURE IS NOT AVAILABLE, IS BETTER THAN SILENCE

COMMUNICATION

Regular communication with ship staff is key. Shipping company offices need to keep their colleagues at sea updated in what is an ever-changing environment. Giving crew as much information as possible, even if the full picture is not available, is better than silence. Knowing that they have the support of their office colleagues is vital, as life at sea can be isolating and is intensified in the current pandemic.

Contact with family and friends is also very important. News from home is a good morale booster for seafarers and knowing their families are safe is a huge relief and many networks are offering discounted voice calls for seafarers for the duration of the pandemic.

COVID-19 has had a dramatic effect on the industry with seafarers having to adapt to unusual circumstances and take on extra tasks and duties. P&I Clubs need to play their part in helping members with practical advice and measures to clarify many of the issues faced by seafarers.

This article was published in the September 2020 issue of Maritime Risk International.

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