April 18, 2018


Shipowners, mariners and social media

The trouble with initiatives around improving the working lives of mariners is that, as Tradewinds Editor Julian Bray observed to the second Wellness at Sea Conference, one tends to be preaching to the converted. Those present during the event organised by the Sailors’ Society were aware of the issues and mostly doing something about them.

But this is far from true across the board. The perception of cost or irrelevance, both of mental health programmes and the investment needed to deliver them, means there is continued resistance to change, despite it being relatively easy to show that there is value not just financial terms but in governance and business ethics.

Bray asked a panel of experts including Divisional Director of Tindall Riley P&I Club Ella Hagell, Senior Vice President Market Strategy for Inmarsat Maritime Drew Brandy, CEO of Euronav Paddy Rogers and SVP of Sales at Brightwell Payments Mark Robertshaw about some of the key themes of the day: how to improve awareness around mental health issues and the role of better communications.

Hagell said the issue most often encountered is job overload; too many people with too much to do in too little time, something which is tied into the relationship between shore and ship. “Cardiff University asked seafarers about that relationship and found a real disconnect, a perceptible lack of understanding ashore of what life is like. That includes being bombarded with emails at all hours day and night asking for an immediate response.”

Another area of concern is lack of financial planning for seafarers said Robertshaw, with the lack of pension and sickness benefit creating additional stress which some basic financial training could help reduce.

Delivering any improvement in conditions relies to a greater or lesser extent on communications and Inmarsat’s Brandy said the solution goes beyond pure connectivity. “It’s fundamental and vital to providing access to seafarers and their loved ones but they are not unique in social isolation depression, alienation. The difference is other professions have better opportunities for support. Technology alone is not the answer, we are starting to reshape the landscape and enable people to interact because they are entitled to the same support and tools.”

For Paddy Rogers, head of one of the industry’s largest tanker owners, the answer to ‘where to go from here’ begins with an admission. “We don’t know the answer. The starting point is to have ideas and change the conversation in a rational way. Looking backwards, we can see that big landmark events changed the way we worked and the did a lot ultimately to improve the image, reputation, safety and security of tankers.”

Rogers pointed out that safety and sustainability would continue to be driven by customer expectations, though the industry has a record of improving in many areas voluntarily. Bray suggested that the key to progress was for the industry to stop believing in its own exceptionalism and that the burdens placed on seafarers were somehow justified.

“The critical thing about shipping is we operate between jurisdictions,” said Rogers “so our business model is based on not being in one country and that meant that we fell though the net of national legislation until the Maritime Labour Convention. We are always following along behind.”

The clean-up of the capital that has flowed into shipping and set much of its course over the last 60 years has helped, but the solution cannot be legislation alone said Brandy. There needs to be a cultural mind shift to tackle wider human and financial issues.

“We need to understand that connectivity for seafarers is not a luxury item and also that some owners are scared of what it means for them,” he said. “The reality is that the cost of connectivity is fraction of overall operating cost and equipping your vessel enables your people to do their jobs more effectively. It is hard to think of another industry with so little connectivity whether for social or problem solving.”

Still the perception exists that if owners provide connectivity it is hard to manage or will be misused. Hagell agreed there was a need for owners to learn how to manage access to social media and how to balance the negatives such as sleep deprivation. “The crew wants to engage with home and sometimes they are obliged to be on it or will wake up when there is coverage. As a result we’ve seen owners go from an open policy to limiting access to a couple of hours – for their benefit and the safety of vessel.” She said.

The Club tries to get message across in a positive way, rather than start with the sanctions. Having a platform where owners can share best practice is important and it encourages them to pool ideas that can be passed on.

This, Rogers observed made the industry “like the parents of a 16-year old child who you try to help with their homework only to find they know more than you do”. The first question candidates ask Euronav recruiters is not about the company’s safety record but concerns connectivity onboard ship. “It’s arrived you can’t switch it off and tanker owners are worried about what happens if you have an accident,” he added. “An option is to consider an internet café to try and bring back social life onboard. The trouble is older people always think it was better in the old days and vice versa.”

The issue for the industry is not access but remaining relevant, Brandy suggested. Intense connectivity is the reality of the world we live and shipping has a responsibility to adopt it and integrate it into its daily operations.

The issues that afflict mariners – IT policies, education and cyber risk management – are all day to day onshore issues too he added. We should be very cautious of treating maritime as an exception even though some of the challenges are unusual. “I struggle with the idea that mariners work at sea for an extended time but without connectivity.”

Despite the seriousness around mental health issues, Rogers, who is married to a psychologist, said the industry needs to be better at choosing, training and caring for seafarers in what remains a high pressure, exposed and lonely job.

“When our ship Limburg was hit by an Al Qaeda suicide attack in 2002, the ship was on fire and the master thought half the crew might be dead, but all the time his helmsman stood like a rock on the bridge. When we spoke to the helmsman later it turned out that he was in deep shock. The master wanted to believe that he had a strong person next to him when in fact he was simply unable to respond. Too often silence is mistaken for compliance.”

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