Putting welfare front and centre

Idwal’s Thom Herbert calls for ‘fundamental and positive’ change on a global level

By Carly Fields

Ship owners and operators who have a very strong focus on the welfare of their seafarers tend to be the exception rather than the rule in the experience of Idwal’s Thom Herbert.

But as the company’s Crew Wellbeing Advocate, a senior marine surveyor, and a former seafarer, Thom is working to change that status, broadcasting the message that a happy crew can and does lead to a ‘happy’ – and better maintained – vessel.

At Idwal, Thom has responsibility for portfolio management of customer fleets, development and improvement of products, training of new members to the team, and deputising in the management of the technical team, when required.

Before moving ashore and starting at Idwal in 2019, Thom worked at sea as a deck officer on a variety of vessel types, including oil and gas tankers, and a small luxury cruise ship. This sea-going experience gave him a true understanding and appreciation of the issues seafarers face. He has experienced the long time away from home, the consistent and long working hours with minimal rest intervals, the impact low quality food has on bodies as well as the vessel’s morale, the struggle of having limited communication methods, and having to adjust to the consistent noise and rattles of a ‘live’ vessel. “These are all issues that have been raised yet they can be difficult to fully comprehend – in how it can impact both the physical and mental health of a seafarer – until they are experienced first-hand,” he says in conversation with The Sea.

He was inspired to become Idwal’s crew wellbeing advocate during his last contract working deep-sea. There, he experienced, for a variety of reasons, several issues that severely impacted the welfare on board. From that point he decided that he could not work deep-sea again and has been a passionate advocate of crew welfare ever since. “Many of the issues I experienced I felt could have been easily resolved,” he says.

Welfare questions

During the pandemic, Idwal was looking to work on several sustainability initiatives, both on an internal and external level. The topic of ‘External health and wellbeing’ was championed, and Thom put his name forward to be involved in a working group. “During the initial discussions I suggested the idea of adding in 12 welfare questions [to Idwal’s vessel checklist] to allow us to gather better data on the topic, and that has really developed into what it is today. Fundamentally it is the difficult challenges that I have experienced in the past that led me to focus on this role and I am very proud to have the support of my colleagues at Idwal to do so,” Thom says.

Those 12 new questions were added to the firm’s vessel checklist with the focus on objective questions to make the findings harder to ignore and zeroing in on areas where any problem has a clear solution. Answers to the questions form part of the Idwal grade, an overall grade the company grants a ship based on over 500 data points from inspections which are run through an algorithm.

“This has allowed us to gather crew welfare data on every inspection we have conducted since then and from this we have been able to release data to the market, with access to Wi-Fi being a previous example, as well as present the data in welfare webinars,” says Thom.

He notes that the challenges and opportunities for seafarers do vary between coastal and deep-sea trades. Working deep-sea leads to much longer contracts, which means more time away from my family and friends, as well as limited methods of communication being available, periods of intense and long working hours, and at times severe limitations in food quality and variety. That said, on the positive side he notes that he has “sailed around the world as a result and seen locations and sights that can only be seen from this role

Working on a coastal trade pattern is easier as seafarers are away from home less, often have access to their own phone signal, and the food quality can be better.

Crew champion

Thom’s work on crew welfare was recognised at the Seatrade Maritime Awards in 2022 where he won the ‘Future Leaders of the Year’ award.

“Receiving the award went beyond any expectations I had when I first suggested introducing the 12 crew welfare questions into our checklist and it really is a massive honour to have been nominated, let alone be successful in receiving the award.

“While it is a great personal achievement it is down to the hard work from my colleagues at Idwal – fundamentally it is a team effort and what has been achieved so far is down to everyone working in the same direction. I am also delighted that the issue of crew welfare is recognised at this level – as it is only by it being highlighted at the highest levels that meaningful and constructive change can be made to improve welfare standards.”

Thom would like to see ship owners and operators doing more to support seafarer welfare. While the information on how to improve crew welfare on board vessels is readily available in Idwal’s checklist, ship operators can also ask themselves simple questions: “Think of how they would like to spend four months on board a vessel; do you want to be able to easily and freely communicate with your loved ones; do you want to have access to a variety of good quality food; do you want to have access to a variety of recreational facilities to allow periods of rest to be more enjoyable? These are only a small example of the areas that can be improved upon to ensure good crew welfare standards are maintained.”

He adds that there is always more that can be done: “Standards can always be improved upon – the second we as an industry feel we have done enough is the point that we start to fail seafarers.”

Shoreside comparisons

Regulators also have a role to play. While regulations are in place to ensure minimum welfare levels are maintained for every vessel at sea, these are, as the name suggests, generally to a minimum standard. Thom gives the example of the upcoming amendments to the Maritime Labour Convention with regards to the requirement that shipowners “should, so far as is reasonably practicable, provide seafarers on board their ships with internet access, with charges, if any, being reasonable in amount”.

“Two issues come to mind when reading this – the first being that internet access has been a cornerstone of our society for at least the last 8 to 10 years and yet only now will it be a requirement, ‘so far as is reasonably practicable’, for it to be available to seafarers.

“The second is the wording regarding the cost ‘with charges, if any, being reasonable in amount’. The worry here is what will stop a shipowner charging excessively for the access? Will seafarers have to spend a good portion of their wages just to speak with their family?”

He adds that when these amendments were confirmed, there was a general sense of positivity noted around the industry, which he sees as an indication of how low the bar currently is when it comes to crew wellbeing.

“Many, if not all, of the luxuries we take for granted from shoreside simply do not exist in many vessels throughout the world. It is only by understanding this that the issues seafarers face on a daily basis can be fully understood and as such more meaningful changes can be made,” says Thom.

Despite the progress made, Thom has bold plans for the future. He would like to see the work being done today transferred into positive and meaningful change in crew welfare standards. This, he sees, as a “realistic and achievable goal”.

“Fundamental and positive changes need to be made on a global level to improve crew wellbeing – not only for the seafarers of today but for the potential seafarers of tomorrow. It is only by making these changes at the highest possible level that we can then know they will filter down and positively impact seafarers throughout the world.”

If successful, this will percolate through to the next generation, encouraging them to take up a career at sea where they can experience a wide variety of challenges and experiences, but without the weaknesses in welfare that we see today.