Encouraging equality, responsibility and trust

It’s time to take a fresh look at resolving welfare challenges

By Nick Chubb

When it comes to better understanding seafarer welfare issues, I believe there are three key topics to consider: the importance of equality of access for the world’s seafarers; the responsibility that comes with control; and the roles of technology and trust in improving the lives of those at sea.

Equality of access to critical services, whether that is mental, physical, or spiritual support in times of need, is critical in creating better outcomes for the industry.

In research we conducted before the pandemic, we found no evidence to suggest mental health issues among seafarers were significantly higher than in the general population.

Mental health issues affect around one in four people. The numbers are similar with seafarers, with the trend just a couple of percentage points higher than in the general population. But the important distinction here is not how common mental health issues are, but in the equality of their outcomes.

At sea, the rate of proven suicides is nearly four times higher than for populations on land. This excludes figures where suicide cannot be proven because the person is lost overboard, so the real story is likely far worse than these figures suggest.

It is not just an issue of suicide either. Mental health problems, which are often left untreated at sea, actively contribute to the risk of accidents at sea. Seafarers who are depressed or suffering from anxiety are twice as likely to get injured or suffer from another illness while on board when compared with those who are not.

Seafarers are not special – we experience all of the same issues that everyone ashore does. The key difference is that while someone ashore can privately and discreetly seek support, more often than not, this is not the case at sea.

Question of control

My second topic is control. The relationship between control and health is significant. Going to sea is an act of relinquishing control. You relinquish control to myriad external factors such as the weather or the needs of a charterer in a distant office. But you also relinquish control over things that so many of us take for granted such as your diet, your ability to exercise, and your ability to sleep through the night.

We have all learned a great deal about the impact of relinquishing control over our lives in the last 18 months. We have all learned the detrimental effects of not being able to do the things we need to do to get better, and not knowing when life will return to normal.

When we look at welfare holistically, mental, social and physical health are interdependent and linked. For example, depression and anxiety are positively correlated with cardiac diseases and sleep disorders in seafarers. In relinquishing control in the way that they have to, to do their jobs, all seafarers are increasing their personal risk factors when it comes to health.

My final theme is technology and trust. I believe that the world’s seafaring community, and the profession as a whole, is at a critical juncture. In the last 18 months, we have demonstrated, despite enormous efforts put in by so many people, a collective inability to organise a unified voice that speaks at the highest levels for the welfare of the 1.6 million men and women who go to sea and keep society functioning.

Consequently, I believe that trust between the seafaring community, and the stakeholders that rely on them, is currently very low. Technology and trust are an important combination and I sincerely believe that technology without trust can be dangerous.

As the 21st century progresses we are at the beginnings of a radical transformation in how we live and work. This is a bigger shift for humanity than the agricultural revolution, the invention of the written word, or even the discovery of electricity.

As humans we are not very good at looking ahead and predicting exponential change. But by looking back we can gain an understanding of how fast technology is accelerating.

The rapid growth in autonomous technology means that a future where ships have very small crews, or just a handful of operators, is not very far away at all. In the not-so-distant future it is highly likely that we will have unmanned bridges, in the same way we have unmanned machinery spaces today. With the vast majority of tasks automated away, a single person, supported by a team ashore, may be able to operate a deep-sea ship on their own for months at a time. As that happens, the responsibility on us as an industry to look after those who are at the sharp end drastically increases.

The ‘amplifier’

Technology is not in any way a silver bullet for the industry’s welfare issues. Technology is an amplifier, it allows you to do things faster, cheaper, and at a larger scale. But it is completely neutral. No technology is inherently good or bad. It is about how it is used.

I mentioned earlier that I believe that trust between the seafaring community and the world’s maritime stakeholders is low. Unfortunately, I believe that if it is handled in the wrong way, technology may be an amplifier of this issue.

Technology cannot solve the industry’s welfare issues – it only has the potential to amplify what works.

As the march of technology continues apace, redesigning seafarer welfare for the 21st century will require us to pursue equality of access for support for those at sea, whether it’s for physical, emotional, or spiritual needs. As crews get smaller and port stays shorter this includes placing more emphasis on access to support while on board and on leave, instead of in ports. It will require us to give as much freedom as possible to individuals at sea, and to make the best decisions we can for them when they can’t have control. This includes a duty of care that covers diet, exercise, sleep and fatigue, to prevent issues as well as providing access to the right support when issues do arise.

Lastly, it requires us to rebuild a bond of trust between the industry and those who go to sea which has been slowly eroded over many years. This includes creating the mechanisms that allow for the collective voice of seafarers to engage decision makers at the highest levels of government, industry, and commerce.

Nick Chubb is a former merchant navy deck officer who has specialised in emerging technology since moving ashore. He is currently the Managing Director of Thetius, a technology and consulting group focused on enabling innovation in the maritime industry.