Putting welfare front and centre

Industry champions are on a mission to revolutionise seafarer wellbeing

By Carly Fields

Grahaeme Henderson, chair of Together in Safety, is on a mission to convince all chief executives of shipping companies to make seafarer wellbeing a top priority.

Henderson shared his undertaking in a keynote speech delivered at an Inmarsat- hosted London International Shipping Week panel session entitled ‘Meeting the welfare needs of seafarers in a digital age’. He told the audience that safety is “not a competitive subject” and therefore industry leaders must work together to drive change.

Together in Safety was formed two years ago to help effect change. Its membership is a cross section of shipping industry groups, working in partnership to improve safety and wellbeing. The goal is to make shipping the world’s leading industry in caring for mental health, the flagbearers in caring for its workers.

The Mission to Seafarers was one of four charities involved in the organisation of the Inmarsat event.

The Revd Canon Andrew Wright, MtS secretary-general, explained how the pandemic prompted the Mission to pivot to allow it to continue to offer welfare support to seafarers. While ship visits were curtailed, the Mission’s chaplains have still been attending ships, but from the gangway, maintaining face-to-face contact wherever possible. “That remains very important and provides a vital support that is irreplaceable,” he said.

Digital services have also been enhanced or created to offer blended support.

For example, MtS’ Chat to a Chaplain service put 25 chaplains on call 24 hours a day. Local chaplaincy services are also providing a huge range of social media contact. “Digital needs to run alongside and will never replace face-to-face,” Wright said.

Joining the panel, Mark O’Neil, chief executive and president of Columbia Shipmanagement, added that pre-emptive and protective mental health support for seafarers is critical. “If Covid has done one thing it has acted as a catalyst to bring the whole mental health debate to the fore,” he said. “People are our greatest asset.”

He praised the increased prominence of crew and staff onshore during the pandemic: “They are no longer part of an invisible sector; they are being seen and communicated with. That’s fantastic.” Not only do people need to be identified with, but they also need to be seen, be taught to recognise signs of mental health and have the courage to recognise their mental health issues, he said.

One voice

O’Neil called on the industry to come together with one voice to tackle the issue of improving seafarer welfare. “There are various very professional disparate bodies each fighting for the corner of those subsectors but there is not a single voice to engage with national governments. Until we have that we are not going to be able to make forceful arguments with one voice.” He added that the industry could surely agree on some of the big issues, such as rotation of crew, safety, and welfare. “We don’t need to compete on these, we can collaborate on them.”

Wright noted that he is sometimes asked why seafarers’ charities do not work together, but the reality is that they work very closely together, no more so than during Covid.

Looking for a solution to the problem, John Adam, vice president of the International Chamber of Shipping, citing a V. Group Wellbeing Study, put forward six building blocks to improve seafarers’ welfare:

  • Categorise seafarers as key workers
  • Improve education and training
  • Constantly monitor physical and mental health
  • Enable the power of data
  • Engage at all levels
  • Instil a safety culture

“Covid magnified welfare problems by the power of ten or more. What was urgent then is more urgent now,” he said.

Ronald Spithout, Inmarsat maritime president, agreed that the pandemic has amplified the needs of seafarers and that a different approach now needs to be taken to tackle the issue. “The tech is there,” he said. “If we set ourselves a target on improving wellbeing on a vessel, stakeholders around the industry will see this as good for them – and then the dynamics will change.”