Enabling the Disabled

Could owners and crewing agencies do more to support less able seafarers?

By Felicity Landon

The rules are clear: all seafarers must pass strict medical examinations before they can set foot on a vessel.

The IMO’s International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) re- quires every seafarer serving at sea to hold a valid medical certificate.
In an attempt to ‘harmonise’ national fitness standards for seafarers, the IMO and the International Labour Organization published new Guidelines on Medical Examinations in 2013, taking STCW and also the Maritime Labour Convention into account.

“The aim of the medical examination is to ensure that the seafarer being examined is medically fit to perform his or her routine and emergency duties at sea and is not suffering from any medical condition likely to be aggravated by service at sea, to render him or her unfit for service or to endanger the health of other persons on board,” the guidelines state.

But are the requirements too inflexible? Could less able seafarers find a role onboard? Is there a case to challenge the accepted approach?

“Obviously disability is an evolving concept and maybe ten years ago nobody would have even thought to ask the question, because it was beyond their imagination,” says Jürgen Menze, disability inclusion officer in the ILO’s conditions of work and equality department. “But asking these questions is important because it can help to promote the opportunities for disabled people and highlight the issue.”

He says one of the key issues is that the guidelines “take a very medical approach and we need to be careful with that”.

“Instead of taking the medical model of disability, which looks at the challenge or problem being situated in the individual, we try to promote the concept of the social model, i.e. that the environment and societies need to change so that people with disability can be included and fully participate.”

Of course, it makes clear sense to have medical examinations for seafaring, says Mr Menze, “but it must be in a non-discriminatory way and needs to be aligned with the essential requirements of the job”.

“There are degrees of disability, and that is the challenge. Look at government statistics from different countries, some say 20% of their population is considered disabled but others say they have only 2% to 3% – so where do you draw the line?”

Broadening minds

Broadly speaking, the ILO team encounters systems that don’t make things easier for disabled people, he says. “We are pushing for a more inclusive and enabling environment – for example, through digital and physical accessibility. At least we must educate ourselves and engage with people with disabilities and ensure their voice is represented.”

He suggests that bringing together the shipowner/shipping industry and disability organisations would be a positive step. “Discussions could take place on the basis that one side doesn’t know much about shipping and the other doesn’t know much about disability, but let’s have a chat in a non-judgmental way, find out what is possible and what is not possible, and confront stereotypes on both sides. We find that even when employers do work on disability issues, they may not always involve expert organisations for people with disability.

“It could be about taking a more open and flexible approach, looking at what is really needed for a certain job, and ensuring people are not automatically discounted. Can the requirements really all be justified?”

Simon Frank, chief human resources officer at ship manager Thome, believes that engaging in such a discussion might offer huge potential gains for the industry. “This is an intriguing topic,” he says. “We have not done much to explore the opportunity to work with disabled seafarers as a specific source up to now, and there are many reasons for that, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an interesting debate to have. All the more reason for us to say – let’s get into that subject and discuss what could be the opportunities.”

Companies like Thome are, of course, constrained by the rules, however much they might want to take a more flexible approach. “Being regulated so heavily as we are, we don’t have the opportunity right now to be exploring this as a single and individual company,” says Mr Frank.

“However, from the resource perspective, we are constantly looking for seafarers. Ever since I started in the crewing business many years ago, how we can expand our seafarer resource has always been an issue. It hasn’t been improving over the past 25 years and I don’t think it will improve in the next 25 either.” So, he says, it is very attractive to discuss out-of-the-box and non-traditional solutions.

“The industry is extremely regulated by authorities, including flag States. It is very mechanical – seafarers have to go through a very strict and rigid process with a medical examination every time they sign a contract. The demands are strict, and there are companies and players in the industry setting the mar- gin even higher, so the health requirements/limitations are more and more intense.”

Movement requirements

The physical elements can’t be pushed to one side, of course. Seafarers need to move around on a vessel, including in rough weather, go up and down stairs, enter narrow spaces and work in the physically demanding confines of an engine room. But those elements should be part of the dialogue, says Mr Frank.

“My view is that we should have no limit in exploring the opportunities and not deny any discussion that might improve our seafarer resource globally.”

For example, seafarers undergoing their medical examination in the Philip- pines face some tough physical and psychological tests just to get the certificate allowing them to join their vessel: “If you sat down and really went through those points and asked whether some of them were excluding some very strong talent or potential seafarers that could be an asset to our industry, I am sure the answer would be yes. There are good reasons for some of these rigid rules but are we missing out on some opportunities here?”

Mr Frank is enthusiastic about the idea of bringing together shipowner, seafarer and disability organisations to start the discussions, and points out that the IMO and flag States would have to be the drivers for change. There is, he says, probably a lot of prejudice and assumptions as to what is shipping and what is disabled.

The difficulty in attracting young people to a career at sea hardly needs repeating and the seafaring industry is not likely to be any more attractive after the Covid-19 pandemic is resolved.
Henrik Jensen, managing director of Danica Crewing Services, says that on its ships, each crew member has to be able to fully contribute to the mitigation of accidents and incidents, both physically and mentally. So, if a person has a disability and can still fulfil the above, he sees no reason why she or he should not be employed.

While he points out that in an emergency situation on a cargo ship, there are no extra resources to care for a crew member who is not able to care for themselves, he also compares this with passenger ships where there would be, in emergency situations, crew resources and contingency plans to manage and take care of passengers, including dis- abled people. That in itself might open up opportunities at least in one sector.

‘Reasonable adjustment’

Michael Paul, head of advice and information at Disability Rights UK, says the important phrase ‘reasonable adjustment’ comes into play in relation to the Equality Act 2010. “So it would be appropriate to consider what elements make an environment, and the roles within it, ‘dangerous’, as opposed to labelling each role as ‘dangerous’ based on the assumption of the sea as being dangerous,” he says. “It’s then applicable to look at adjustments that could be made to a role that are ‘reasonable’ to both employee and employer. Or, in fact, there may be no adjustment required, other than attention to the true requirements of a role.”

A lot of employers onshore and off- shore will rely on previous experience and apply a ‘this is what we’ve always done’ attitude when advertising for and filling a vacancy, says Mr Paul. And there could even be support in the wider sense.

In the UK, for example, the government’s Access to Work programme can assist with any financial impact of necessary adjustments and support to enable a disabled person to work – although, as Mr Paul points out, often there actually isn’t any financial impact at all.

Jürgen Menze at the ILO says work experience is another important point. “Returning to work for someone who was not previously disabled, but has acquired a disability, is never easy – but it is easier for them to go back to a job where they already had experience. It is not so easy for a disabled person starting out.”

The ILO has developed a range of guidance for employers on how to attract, recruit, employ and advance the careers of persons with disabilities, including setting out criteria and solutions that can be found, and considering what would create a reasonable burden or unreasonable burden on the employer.

Is this a controversial issue? “Not necessarily,” says Bob Fay, senior vice president, maritime operations at IRI, the manager of the Marshall Islands Ship Registry. “Much like the military, the physical fitness requirements are well documented and enforced. All seafarers, for safety reasons, must pass regular physicals and be found ‘fit for duty at sea’ before they can be certified for service.”

He suggests that shipowners and others should provide more opportunities for disabled maritime personnel to serve ashore in the maritime industry. “There are many seafarers that developed physical disabilities from accidents or illnesses that are able to utilise their experience and expertise ashore in planning, training, scheduling, etc.”

With experienced mariners in high demand, utilising them to help assure safe vessel operations while working from less demanding shoreside environments is surely just common sense.