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    In the summer of 2022, we were joined by Thom Herbert (Idwal Senior Marine Surveyor and Crew Welfare Advocate), Steven Jones (Founder of the Seafarers Happiness Index), and Captain Yves Vandenborn (Director of Loss Prevention at the Standard Club) for a very special webinar focusing on crew wellbeing. We asked the question: Does seafarer wellbeing have an impact on the integrity and risk of a vessel? To watch the full webinar click here, or find the full Q&A session below.

    Our Panel

    Thom Herbert

    Senior Marine Surveyor and Crew Welfare Advocate

    Steven Jones

    Founder of the Seafarers Happiness Index

    Captain Yves Vandenborn

    Director of Loss Prevention at the Standard Club


    Will investing in Crew Welfare improve the condition of a vessel?

    Thom (Idwal):  It's a very good question. First of all I think it's important to highlight that when we state the condition of a vessel, there are over 500 data points. So crew welfare one hundred percent has an impact on that, but there are various other points that will impact that. Such as condition of decks, machinery, overhaul maintenance, PMS condition, the list is almost endless. I will say that with the introduction of these crew welfare questions, it allows us to get a better idea and look further into the link between vess:el condition and crew welfare.

    Steven (SHI): Change is often slow. So will a happy crew instantly translate into a good ship, I don't honestly know. We suspect it will, and looking at the data from Idwal and are our own kind of thoughts on how important seafarers are, then yes. But I would look at it slightly differently. If you've got a lot of unhappy, dissatisfied, fatigued, world weary seafarers onboard, your vessel could certainly get worse. So it's not always looking at the positive, there is a constant negative to all of this as well so investing in crew and making sure that they have the best chance to do the job, to live well, to enjoy their career at sea is an important fundamental of this.

    Yves (Standard Club): I echo the same comments as Thom and Steven did, welfare is one of many aspects that influences the condition on board. Improving the welfare will maybe not immediately improve the condition on board, but it's definitely a contributing factor to it.

    What is the best way to improve or invest in crew welfare on board?

    Thom (Idwal): Seafarers need to be heard more and have their voices respected more. Much in the same way our industry is trying to address the lack of diversity, we should apply the same positive goals to learning more from crew directly. There are lots of great initiatives to bring these voices to the fore but more still needs to be done here. We need to hear those real life stories first hand and humanise crew more. Key crew issues I hear about are: wifi/communication with family, work and rest time, shore leave and non- or late payment of wages. All stressful and potentially debilitating in their own ways.

    Steven (SHI): By listening to seafarers, hearing what they want and believe to be the solutions. There is no point wasting time, effort or resources on the things that collectively crew do not feel they want or need. So a proper dialogue is needed. A willingness to improve things onboard is fantastic, but if it is done without consultation then it calls into question the real motive.

    Yves (Standard Club): This really depends on the budget the company is able/willing to dedicate to the welfare of their seafarers. Simple solutions can include organising social activities (BBQ, karaoke, etc) on board, pushing for shore leave to be allowed, providing WiFi connection on board etc. More elaborate solutions can include redesigning accommodation spaces to be less noisy or less prone to vibrations, equipping ships with exercise areas, adding additional crew on board to reduce the workload, etc

    How does alcohol consumption play a role in crew welfare and social life on board?

    Thom (Idwal): I don't think alcohol does play a significant role now as most ships are 'dry', however, I do think that the bar provided a social focal point for many seafarers in the past and it enabled a real switch off from work when you were off duty. Lots of debate about this but we do need to keep in mind that a ship is where a seafarer rests as well as works and we should question whether it's patronising/damaging to want to control every aspect of their lives. As long as rules are in place around alcohol consumption, I believe that bars onboard can improve social cohesion onboard, and it should not be forgotten that even on dry vessels, seafarers can still go ashore to drink alcohol in most countries..

    Steven (SHI): Well it could be argued that alcohol plays no part, because the vast majority of vessels are now dry ships. It is such a difficult question to answer. Most people who went to sea a few years ago saw that a low level of access to alcohol helped socialisation onboard. While they will also admit that as soon as that "low access" was breached then it became a problem. The ship's bar was a social hub, and it seems that many have found it hard to adequately replace that. My thinking is that this is where it is so important to have great audio visual equipment and access to movies and TV, or games. To try and bring a social dynamic back. Alcohol is not the real issue, it is just that the pleasant places to share time with others has been taken away and not really replaced.

    Yves (Standard Club): I will be controversial on this topic and actually recommend that the consumption of soft alcohol should be allowed on board. Off course, this should be well regulated, in communal areas only and should not include hard liquor. Consumption of soft alcohol will aid in creating a positive environment for the crew to relax and open up socially towards each other, improving the overall wellbeing

    There are a lot of crew wellbeing initiatives ashore from various charities and organisations but do you get a sense that seafarers are aware of them and are they having any impact at all? It’s sometimes difficult to know if any progress is being made…

    Thom (Idwal): Yes, there are some fantastic initiatives and lots of people ashore working hard to make the issues more visible but we have surveyors on vessels who speak to crew every day, who have no or very little idea of the great help and resources that could be available to them. I believe that true partnership amongst the various charities, organisations, and other stakeholders could enable streamlining of resources and streamlining of the messages conveyed to seafarers so they are not bombarded with information and then not know where to turn for the best when they need it.

    Steven (SHI): There are so many initiatives, and in some ways that is good - as it shows people care. But conversely it does mean that they are all making the same noise in the same space. It can be hard to know which initiative is achieving what. I am biased, as the Seafarers Happiness Index is what I do. I know we need to get to more seafarers, I crave more responses and insights, but I desperately hope that by raising awareness, by hammering home the messages from seafarers that we can make positive change. The fact that Idwal is partnering with the Mission to Seafarers on this as a sponsor, and they are objectively asssessing the standard of vessels is a great sign of progress. This means that hopefully we can show that satisfied seafarers make for better ships, and better ships make for happier crews. If we get both of those things right, then that would be amazing and wonderful progress.

    Yves (Standard Club): It is great to see all the initiatives put in action by the various seafarer charities. I would agree that more can be done to make the seafarer aware of these and be able to benefit from it.

    Thom and Yves highlighted wifi access but as mentioned this has now been made mandatory for all seafarers so does that not negate the need to have it in Idwal inspection reports?

    Thom (Idwal): Absolutely not. I think with any welfare issue, whether it's based at sea or based on shore, it's a constant evolution. And while it is excellent news to see that this will be pushed forward and it's gonna be mandatory having access on board. Like Yves mentioned, there's no indication of how much it's gonna cost. And there's no indication of how effective that internet access will be. It's all well and good so you have internet access but if you can only access a whatsapp message once a day in comparison to accessing social media, it's a very different environment. If you have to pay 25 50 dollars to access 500 megabytes suddenly seafarers are making the choice to send the money home or did they use it to contact him and that isn't a choice that you should be making in the first place. It's vital we ask this and it's important to raise we're not simply asking does it have wi-fi? We're going further and we're asking what is the speed? is it paid for? is it free? That granularity in the question allows us to get better concept of what the general consensus is behind the wi-fi on boards.

    Steven (SHI): I think you know when seafarers talk about connectivity it's not just in broader sense they talk about good quality cost-effective connectivity and as this becomes more of a compliance issue then it's more important than ever that we're able to build this realistic picture of what the actual state of connectivity is on board and how the seafarers feel about it. I think it's becoming even more of a key trigger issue.

    What is the correlation between unhappy crew to safety and accidents?

    Steven (SHI):There is the obvious human angle to all of this, whether it's retention of seafarers, whether it's you know in in your own friendships, relationships, whatever. No one ever left the job because they were too happy and so you know this is the reality that we're working with. The human angle is so important and pivotal onto all of this. The issue of anxiety is really interesting. I did have a look at the data we've had for the quarter that's coming and there does seem to be this sense of associated kind of things around anxiety and hearing that this is a wider issue. I had COVID myself a few months back and one of the knock-on effects of that was i i felt quite anxious afterwards and so i don't know whether this is
    perhaps a long tale of covid that is perhaps affecting people at sea as well. Hopefully we'll be able to explore that more in the quarter that's coming but it does seem to be something of a ticking time bomb that's in seafaring at the moment.

    Yves (Standard Club): I had a look at that in in our claims actually because i was expecting a question like that. It's really difficult to, in our claims, find back those statistics. The way we categorize claims does not always indicate how well-being is related to it. So we'll indicate this was a human error for example, or this was caused by inadequate following of procedures. The causation then tends not to go deep enough to be able to say
    this was an unhappy crew that was distracted on the bridge, that he/she was not paying attention, and then collided with a fishing boat or something like that. So what we are seeing from our claims side is: yes, we are getting more mental illness related claims.

    Most likely that will be as a result of COVID associated with the lack of of shore leave etc. Suicides are an issue as it's not always recorded as a suicide; it might be 'missing at sea' category which is not the same but that is an issue as well for seafarers. What we are seeing this year, particularly so far, is an increase in anxiety of crew and associated with that also repatriation of crew.

    How do you leverage this data when the owner uses a third party ship manager? Are you able to identify ship managers who are particularly strong and good at welfare?

    Thom (Idwal): We link our crew welfare data to the manager of the vessel and can show a correlation between the management and the general level of crew welfare facilities and environment on board, however, it would be too simplistic to say that the happiness of the crew is entirely dependent on the efforts and attitude of the management company.

    Steven (SHI): The main Seafarers Happiness Index is very much focused on anonymity, so no we do not routinely identify from there. However, seafarers do sometimes specifically mention companies - for both good and bad reasons. Where there are things we feel we can approach companies with, without compromising anonymity we do, and the Mission to Seafarers welfare network exists to try and give the right support needed. Interestingly we do work with shipowners and charterers who want their own inhouse study to benchmark against the wider populace. We are also working with some charterers who like to see how all the owners they work with are shaping up. Where issues have been identified, we have reported back and that has led to positive change and action.

    Great discussion, thank you for addressing this issue. In a survey with Alandia, we found that wellbeing onboard is often impacted by bullying and harassment, which was reported to impair concentration and lead to mistakes. Do the panel know of any examples of where unhelpful and unpleasant interpersonal behaviours have been addressed as part of safety improvements?

    Thom (Idwal): To add on top of that at my local port welfare committee meeting, last month there was an issue raised as well and i was speaking to the chaplains who were on board vessels throughout south wales and this was a very common theme. This divide that has been developed between Russian and Ukrainian seafarers. So much so that they wouldn't be in the same room together and if they can't be in the same room together how are they supposed to communicate to safely navigate a ship from A to B. I think this is something that i highlighted when i asked about what is the risk of not having appropriate welfare facilities or appropriate support on board, the risk here is that if a ship grounds or it ends up in a fight and someone gets injured. It's a very volatile situation and the chaplains i spoke to use the term ticking time bomb and realistically it's only going to get worse until something is addressed properly.

    Steven (SHI):
    Over the course of the Ukraine Russia conflict, the last quarter results definitely started to cover those difficult interrelationships on board more and more. Stories of a master and Chief Officer who would not communicate with each other. The safety and also the social implications on board are obvious in that you know a tight knit crew is pivotal to a good vessel and if they're not able or willing to communicate with each other then the safety implications you know are there and real so that's a kind of ongoing live example if you like of the difficulties of social interaction on board.

    Yves (Standard Club): I think all the points mentioned are really valid and important but i want to emphasize that we need to raise the awareness and we need to educate the shore side as well. If the shore side does not have the proper procedures in place to be able to deal with the bullying on board of ships, then on board nothing is going to change. If they are not putting proper procedures in place to when and where on board wi-fi can be accessed, it will create problems. If we are seeing ships where the crew is going on the bridge while passing through Singapore Straits just because they are having a better reception on the bridge - that is distracting the navigators from doing their job and those procedures should be clearly put in place. Another example of the so-called benefits of having really good communication means on board is the operational department pressuring the captain half an hour after departure "where is your departure message?" while the pilot is still on board and the ship hasn't even properly sailed yet. So i think there is a lot of these kind of examples where education of the shoreside people is important in addition to being able to provide those means of communication on board.

    Charterers, ship owners, etc. are obviously mostly concerned with commercial aspects, placing pressure on crews without knowledge of the working environment onboard. How do we get them to factor this into their planning? Current legislation is not not specific enough and results are not measurable until an incident occurs.

    Thom (Idwal): I think the pressure will come from how shipping is financed. Decarbonisation is also a similar challenge for the shipping industry and the Poseidon Principles are starting to reframe the way vessels are financed based on their decarb status. If we can apply similar focus to the financing of vessels/companies based on how well companies treat their seafarers, this would be a massive step. Another key factor would be promoting those who have real seafaring experience into positions of responsibility within ship owning and chartering organisations, to reduce the feeling of distance from the crew.

    Steven (SHI): There is always that dichotomy in shipping. The ships are commercial entities, and there needs to be a balance struck between how seafarers are treated in making the business of moving things happen. The legislation has the building blocks of solutions, but sadly all too often shipping is a lowest common denominator business. Minimum manning and hours of work are seen as a benchmark, rather than a low water mark. The rules have sadly legitimised those who want to cut to core, and that makes it harder for good operators in that cut-throat environment.

    Yves (Standard Club): I think all the points mentioned are really valid and important but i want to emphasize that we need to raise the awareness and we need to educate the shore side as well. If the shore side does not have the proper procedures in place to be able to deal with the bullying on board of ships, then on board nothing is going to change. If they are not putting proper procedures in place to when and where on board wi-fi can be accessed, it will create problems. If we are seeing ships where the crew is going on the bridge while passing through Singapore Straits just because they are having a better reception on the bridge - that is distracting the navigators from doing their job and those procedures should be clearly put in place. Another example of the so-called benefits of having really good communication means on board is the operational department pressuring the captain half an hour after departure "where is your departure message?" while the pilot is still on board and the ship hasn't even properly sailed yet. So i think there is a lot of these kind of examples where education of the shoreside people is important in addition to being able to provide those means of communication on board.

    Human factors are rarely investigated properly in claims (to the detriment of loss prevention) so unsurprising lack of data on wellbeing impact on safety.

    Thom (Idwal): Totally agree. I only hope that as we all gather and show more data and work collaboratively as an industry, we can start to bring these points to the fore more.

    Steven (SHI): That is true, and there is much to be done in that direction. There are some positive industry changes, and a new company has been set up by a former master and investigator working alongside a clinical psychologist. They look at the human angle, ensuring that witnesses are supported and nurtured in the process of thorough investigation.

    Yves (Standard Club): I can only agree with this. Though it is good to see that more and more awareness is being created about the importance of wellbeing for seafarers. This will bring along a better recording of data.

    There is a often separation between crews by nationality? Do you believe creating a singular common eating space would improve the social interaction on-board? For overall cohesion?

    Thom (Idwal): I heard a crewing manager speaking a couple of years ago saying that they intentionally had mixed nationality crews onboard as they didn't want to create sub-groups and cliques. I think their research had shown them that they ran a more efficient operation this way and that it forced more effort on each individual to build relationships onboard. Again, it seemed a little too engineered for my tastes but it would be interesting to know whether this did pan out and if it does actually add to life onboard. I guess, generally, most people are more likely to stick to those of the same culture, language, etc. Eating together is a nice way (hopefully) of bringing people together but there could be more imagination with some joint film nights, gaming competitions, and obviously karaoke to do it in a more lighthearted, relaxed way.

    Steven (SHI): It very much depends. It can be great, cohesive and a social builder. However, it is dependent on a number of factors. What cultures, what size of vessel, is there room? It can also be hard to make different cultures unify. An example from a vessel I was on, was that of garlic...in the mornings some cultures like garlic, others not so much. So suddenly with a shared space there was a conflict created. One which would otherwise not really have arisen. We need to be careful we aren't creating more problems in our search for solutions.

    Cultures around eating are complicated, and can be potentially problematic. 
    Yves (Standard Club): It surprises me to hear there would be different eating spaces on board for different nationalities? I would be in favour of a single common eating area for all crew (maybe separate for officers and ratings, but not based on nationality)
    What is the ideal contractual period length suitable for crew?

    Thom (Idwal): I think this is a difficult question to answer… how long is a piece of string? Different vessels, different routes, different companies… Individual seafarers have different needs and what is right for one is not right for the other. That said, I know how long is too long... We see seafarers who have been onboard for nearly a year, over a year in some cases. They are generally jaded and fatigued, and cannot wait to disembark. However, from my personal experience, I believe that contract lengths between 2 and 4 months are quite nice.

    what is the ideal contractual period lenght suitable for crew.
    I do not believe there is a one size fits all length. It is dependent on so many factors. How hard the ship works, size of the ship, length of time alongside versus time at sea. Lots of quick turnarounds can be very taxing on seafarers. Also whether there are sufficient people onboard to have some downtime or respite. 
    It varies greatly, and it is very hard to pinpoint an optimum. For me personally no more than 4 month. I was once onboard for 7 months, on a busy bulk carrier - that was far too long for me, and the rigours of that duration were definitely diminishing my performance by the time to go home. 
    Steven (SHI): There are sadly other factors at play too - we have heard increasingly from Ukrainian seafarers who do not want to pay off. They have no home left to go to, or will be conscripted if they return. So they simply want to stay onboard. For others, particularly it seems from the Philippines, there is a rise in inflation - this means that seafarers often seek to stay onboard longer to ensure that they can send the same levels of spending power back to their families. 

    Yves (Standard Club): That is a difficult question to answer as it will depend on nationality, culture, trading area, frequency of port calls and other factors.

    Can a 24x7 operator or an app for seafares to share their problems and concerns be helpful ?

    Thom (Idwal): I think there are apps out there already and I'm sure they have varying degrees of usefulness. I believe SeafarerHelp run by ISWAN is a 24/7 helpline that can connect crew with expert help providers depending on the issue. Obviously, connectivity can be an issue with that at times so I think some of the resources we are seeing around self-help and resilience are really useful, enabling seafarers to identify their own issues and providing them with resources to deal with them themselves so they can try to head off issues before having to use external support.

    Steven (SHI): This kind of support does exist already, and ISWAN provides helplines and the like. However, the important thing is not so much the mechanism for reporting, but the means of getting problems fixed. There is nothing worse than seafarers taking the time and courage to speak out, but there not being an adequate and effective response.

    Yves (Standard Club): For sure this would be very helpful and a number of the seafarer charities have free and confidential helplines available for seafarers.

    Hello. What is your view regarding crew fatigue as a result from unlimited time connected to wifi and internet?

    Thom (Idwal): I think this is an excellent question and i think really it overlaps two issues. So fatigue on board vessels, that's nothing new and as both other panelists have raised, it's hard work being at sea and the number of tasks are increasing and it's constant and it's a high risk high pressure environment. As we all know, if something goes wrong more often than not you'll end up on the news because it's a catastrophic event. That's always in the back of the mind of seafarers so as they're working long hours it's like fatigue is already an issue. But i don't think that it's accurate to assume it's accurate to assume that if there was unlimited access that it would be used all the time. Seafarers are professionals they do the job day in day out and the best example of that is over the pandemic. The ships kept coming back and forth. Food, energy, oil, clothes, everything came back and forth all throughout the world. It didn't stop when everything else did. So i think we can trust in them as adults and as responsible professionals that they are given this ability to contact home. So after a hard day's work, like anyone would have, they have the ability to call their wife or their mother or their son whoever they want to call and say i had a rough day how was your day and that could make the world a difference when you're alone.

    Steven (SHI): Certainly that comes across in the happiness index that people saying that having the ability to talk to home makes the difference to their lives. I think also as well we need to be careful, there's a slight implication that one type of fatigue is better than another. That it's okay if they're fatigued as long as they got knackered doing work, whereas if they're tired because they were playing around then it's their own fault. You know i think we have to understand that fatigue seafarers are fatigued seafarers, whatever the reason. That needs to be dealt with and i think echoing tom's excellent point, is if you will trust a person with a hundred million pound vessel you should perhaps trust them with a mobile phone and wi-fi access.

    Yves (Standard Club): I was just going to add i think it really is important that seafarers are able to communicate with their family and i think that is good. But again, in order to improve the social cohesion on board there needs to be a system or an opportunity on board if they are receiving bad news from their family they need to have the means of talking with somebody on board of the ship about it. So that they are not going to stay in their cabin locked up and depressed about what is happening or going to continue calling all the time. Similarly after educating the shoreside people, can we educate the families as well? Don't go and disturb seafarers on board just because the plumbing needs changing in the bathroom or because they don't know how to make a transfer on the bank. Quite a number of companies are putting support in place for families so that the family can call that shore line first to get assistance with this kind of simple things that should not get all the way to the seafarer on board. I'm really in favour of having communication on board and with the family absolutely, but i just feel that the social part on board, that cohesion, is really important to get your crew happy on board and this increases the safety of the ship.

    additional resources

    Hard-working and happy seafarers are integral to the smooth-running of a ship. At Idwal, many of our team have worked at sea and our surveyors speak to seafarers every day whilst conducting inspections. Idwal supports seafarers as the lifeblood of the industry and we are engaged in several industry initiatives to raise understanding of some of the issues facing crew whilst assisting ourselves where we can.

    Go to Crew Welfare