Philip Eastell – Founder of Container Shipping Supporting Seafarers – describes the personal side of container operations at a time when crew, affected by Covid-19, find themselves under more pressure than ever before.
Whilst the world is focused on covid-19, there are many other issues effecting crew safety, on board containerships, offshore supply vessels and most especially on the international fishing fleets. Crew safety is not just about their physical protection, but also includes their health and wellbeing. Anything that effects crew safety will ultimately also affect their performance and happiness levels.
The quality of crew management varies greatly across all sectors with some companies investing heavily in both training and ways to mitigate accidents. These companies also tend to be the most proactive in also supporting seafarer wellbeing programmes and taking care of their crew health.
One company at the forefront of implementing programmes that have addressed safety at sea and reduce accidents is Shell Ship Management, who also won the International Seafarer Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN) award for “Outstanding Support of Seafarers’ Wellbeing” in 2019. Their Resilience programme focuses on mental health at sea and has received international respect for their success.
They have now progressed onto another programme that addresses safety and the reasons that cause accidents, and not surprisingly, the main cause of accidents was found to be lack of sleep.
This must be true across the wider shipping industry, with extra pressure by shipowners to achieve faster turnaround times in port, placing even more stress on crew to work longer hours and get less sleep.
In more recent news, as a result of pressure from the International Transport Workers Federation and the Joint Negotiating Group made up of Maritime employers, the responsibility to fit or remove lashing gear on containerships, used to secure containers stowed on deck , has effectively been passed from the seafarers to the dockers.
There have been issues with seafarers performing this task in the past, one being safety, but dockers should now be given the first opportunity to carry out all lashing work, thereby reducing the workload of the seafarer.
When we consider crew safety, we must also include wellbeing and mental health of seafarers and what more can be done to help and support our seafaring community. The vast majority of crew are not receiving any direct support from their employers and left to source assistance from primarily the maritime charities.
This support is sadly not accessible in all ports when a seafarer needs to have a personal discussion with either a port chaplain or ship visitor. Not all ports around the world are lucky enough to have either a seafarer centre or access to a support worker, which means many seafarers are trying to manage their problems all alone. On board container ships, especially in a world currently restricting seafarer access to shore leave, they are spending even more time alone in their cabins. This only adds to the time they will be thinking and worrying about their problems.
There are maritime charities offering support services, but this often requires a seafarer to have access to a phone or an app on a phone, both of which can only be used when a seafarer is in port or on land, and has time to make the call. There are also publications such as “Steps to Positive Mental Health” published by ISWAN, who also offer the Seafarer helpline.
All these initiatives and services and the many others not mentioned are all well and good, but at the centre of this issue is how a shipping line or vessel management companies manage crew safety and their seafarer wellbeing on board ship. Without the correct application of good management practice on board from the bridge down, seafarers and crew safety will continue to be a major problem, and possibly, sadly, get worse.
Crew safety is most exposed when fires break out on board, either from accidents that happen, for example, in the engine room or more seriously, from the growing problem of mis-declared cargoes and non-declaration of hazardous cargoes.
I cannot imagine how traumatising it must be to be faced with fire breaking out on board a 24,000TEU container vessel – bearing in mind crew are seafarers, not professional fire fighters. The firefighting equipment on board all the new larger vessels also does not seem to reflect the growth in size of the vessels, especially when you consider crew size has also reduced with the larger vessels as the below table shows.
When considering dangers from containers there is also the problem of mis-declared overweight containers which can lead to stow collapses endangering the lives of seafarers. In the same way poorly stowed cargo inside the containers that shifts during the voyage, can also become dangerous and another potential risk to the safety of the crew.
Piracy attacks continue to pose a real and current exposure to crew safety and with the increasing knowledge that autonomous pirate fast boats now exist, leaving the crew with extraordinarily few options to protect themselves from attack.
In addition, we cannot forget the human cost following a piracy attack and the trauma crew will be suffering from. The immediate support crew can receive is often limited and in the aftermath of an attack, the crews’ ability to concentrate fully on their tasks must be affected, potentially leading to accidents, effecting both their safety and that of all their fellow seafarers on board.
I think that most, if not all areas that impact on crew safety, can be reduced if not totally mitigated by increased training and taking better care of seafarers in general. It is widely accepted that most accidents and injuries to seafarers occur in the fishing industry. Their safety is a topic of ongoing debate, but increased training is generally seen as key to helping and supporting safety at sea.
So, what is being done to address these issues?
Well, the TT Club have taken the lead, and both identified and addressed these key areas that cause most accidents at sea, that can and do have a direct impact on Seafarer safety.
Mis-declared cargo has become one of the major concerns especially for container shipping lines. This has been proven to be the cause of the most serious fires on board vessels in recent years, causing billions of dollars of damage to both vessels and other containers and their cargo.
Many liners have now threatened to introduce fines for shippers who mis-declare cargo contents in their containers. Hapag-Lloyd and OOCL both announced that they would fine rogue shippers up to US$35,000 per mis-declaration. Wan Hai stated they would fine shippers up to US$30,000 per mis-declared container of hazardous cargo and US$US20,000 per container of non-hazardous cargo.
A recent example of mis-declared cargo were container contents declared as carrying spare parts but actually containing lithium batteries, which were later found to have been the cause of a fire on board a container ship.
A stark statistic that brings home the increasing seriousness of this problem, is that in the past 25 years the number of fires on board ship starting in containers has spiralled upwards four-fold.
“Cargo Integrity” as stated by the TT Club, is “all about increasing awareness and improving standards.”
A number of container industry organisations, whose members include container shipping lines, have all joined forces to collaborate on establishing improved systems and process to reduce the number of mis-declared cargoes in containers, which some industry experts say could be as many as 6 million containers a year, just for mis-declared hazmat cargoes.
These industry bodies include the World Shipping Council, Container Owners Association, ICHCA and the Global Shippers Forum.
One other potential cause of accidents, that can be responsible for the collapse of a stack of containers on deck, is the poor maintenance of ship equipment such as lashing gear or stacking cones. These are already being investigated as a possible reason for the most recent stow collapse on board the APL England which lost around 50 containers overboard off the coast of Australia.
Crew Safety is a responsibility for all areas of our shipping industry, not just for the regulatory bodies and the support organisations such as the IMO, ICS , ILO and ITF, but more importantly and directly from the seafarer employers to provide a safer working environment on board and to provide the correct levels of training , as well as looking after the seafarers wellbeing and health to ensure their safety is a main priority.
Much still needs to be done to address and solve all these problems, which when achieved will of course make a seafarers’ life at sea much safer.
Like most of us, we all have friends and family who want us to come home safely after completing our work responsibilities. Our seafarers deserve and expect that same right.