Seafarer morale tops list of growing safety concerns

Dec 10 2020

In Tanker Operator’s reader survey of the biggest growing safety concerns, “crew morale” proved to be by far the biggest.

Tanker Operator surveyed our readers to find out what areas of tanker operation are you more concerned in terms safety than a year ago. The biggest concern by far was crew morale.


Respondents were invited to tick as many boxes as they like for issues they thought were an increasing concern.


89 per cent ticked “crew morale”. 28 per cent ticked navigation, 26 per cent piracy, 15 per cent work in enclosed spaces, and 28 per cent the increasing complexity of managing propulsion with new fuel rules.


When asked to elaborate further about their safety concerns, a crew member from Mumbai said, “no one cares for the seafarers actually.“


A UK crew member said, “medical treatment from shore. Multiple cases of denied access even before Covid. Training standards are dropping”


A service provider from Norway said, “The way seafarers are treated due to Covid is appalling. Governments need to take care of their human rights.”


A senior HSEQ manager from Greece said, “Limited reaction by national authorities in relation to crew-change issues encountered.”


A seafarer said, “in this pandemic situation, seamen all over the world are frontline workers. In this situation, at least for the seafarer, there should be arrangements for on time sign-on and sign-off. Being away from family is difficult for everyone. When there is extended contract beyond the person's limit, then there comes a situation where safety is compromised. That is too dangerous for the person as well as the other fellow crew members.”


A senior tanker operator manager from Hong Kong said, “ever changing COVID-19 situation and crew repatriation regulations”.


A charterer and vetting manager in Malaysia said, “shipboard stay for extended period, risking safe operation of vessel.”


An ex-master, and current marine advisor in Nigeria said, “Several accidents are occurring mainly due to extended stay onboard and inability of organisations to relieve people on time.”


Other safety concerns

A number of growing safety concerns not related to COVID were mentioned.


A tanker junior manager from Singapore said, “overall decline in training, costs and crew retention”


A regulator in Middle East said, “Need to tackle the decreasing capabilities of the senior sea staff.”


A master in Europe said that a key detriment to safety was “office unnecessary pressure to answer questions yesterday, if possible. Usually the chartering departments ask questions related to several future cargo prospects and most of the time you don't have the time to answer the first question, but you get 2-3 questions more, which take some time to answer, not to mention there are always other pressing matters that happen in the same time. Apparently the operators and their managers don't have any patience to wait for an answer.`”


A tanker operator senior manager in India said, “Criminalising seafarers due to pollution of sea / air.   Less crew, more paper work. Blame culture. Pollution of the seas /air due to malfunctioning of equipment. Complexities using multiple fuel types. Heavy stress when entering or leaving ports. Multiple inspections.”


A service provider in Antwerp said the growth in remote surveys was itself a safety hazard. “Remote surveys and issuance of e-certificates without physical visit on board will induce a lowering of the norm for those ship, crew and manager already operating at the minimum acceptable standard. With Port State Control having drastically cut down their ship's visits, and some operators/flag performing remote ISM surveys, what is the last line of defence to pick the bad apples? Vetting inspections? Bad luck, SIRE is going for remote inspections! What a joke. Hopefully is CDI not going on this remote funky concept.”


A master in Singapore said a big safety concern was “missing uniformity for the navigational instruments.”


An ex chief engineer in Kuwait said, “what is hindering safety is the exhausting official documentation and duplication of inspections, which negatively reflects owner's income and divert ship staff from more essential and practical safety and maintenance issues. “


A service provider in Scandinavia said he had concerns about soft skills (management / leadership) from tanker officers recruited from certain parts of the world, “even though technical skills and nautical knowledge are reasonable to good. BRM/MRM/CRM was added to the STCW requirements but is now officially taught by a large number of people who do not have a clue about the core features and concepts of the original BRM/MRM training programme.”


(Note BRM = bridge resource management, MRM = maritime resource management, CRM = crew resource management).

This person continued, “Another fundamental issue is the widespread use of third party management companies which runs ships for a fixed fee but without caring of the state of the ships; Three to five years later they hand back the vessels more or less totally destroyed. Have seen this happening a number of times with a number of different well-reputed shipping companies.


“Unfortunately probably difficult to change this as the shipping industry in general is carefully set up to allow most (except the crew) to be able to blame someone else. Together with the shipowners’ favourite clause in the P&I insurance agreement, crew negligence = Payable claim. Guess who's to blame?”

“Over time the various inspection regimes in the tanker business (primarily SIRE and CDI) certainly has made a significant difference to the better. Unfortunately these systems have been around long enough and become important enough to make people figure out ways to manage inspections.”


“Additionally, these inspections are often considered so important that it is not uncommon that people onboard focus on creating the required paperwork but forget - or run out of time to - perform the actual work that eventually should result in documentation being produced.”



What is improving

Respondents gave interesting responses when asked where they feel safety is improving,


Four interesting comments came from senior tanker managers in different parts of the world.


“Piracy, safety of navigation” (manager in Hong Kong). “Incidents during safety drills, small improvement though” (manager in Greece). “Technical quality and propulsion” (manager in the US). “Mooring Operations” (manager in Greece) “[reduced] potential for fire” (manager in India).


A tanker junior manager from Greece said, “the realization of the industry that we need to manage mistakes in a different way.”


A tanker operator junior management / superintendent in Turkey said, “personal protection equipment is getting better.”


A master in Singapore said “GPS”


A UK service provider / consultant said, “navigation - there appear to be less collisions then previously”


An ex-master, now marine consultant in Nigeria, said, “enclosed space entry - This aspect has proper

risk assessment tools. “


An ex chief engineer combined in Kuwait said, “Safety is improving in all areas of ship design, equipment and operation.”


A tanker operator junior management / superintendent in Oslo said, “Cybersecurity,”


A tanker operator senior manager in Canada said, “bridge teams, tank cleaning teams”


A service provider / consultant in Antwerp said, “Paper based management and digitalisation. But is it really an improvement or merely an evolution? Paper documents are not real life.”


A master in Europe said he thought safety in general was improving. “This is obvious when those on board gain more experience and the office personnel take things slowly, with an accent on safety, rather than doing more in a shorter period.”


A tanker senior manager in Peru said, “access control.”


A charterer and vetting Manager in Malaysia said, “safety awareness with crew are better shown.”


A tanker operator senior manager in India said, “precautions before entering enclosed spaces. navigation - electronic charts, fire detecting / firefighting techniques, operation of critical equipment.”


A tanker operator senior management in Greece said, “reporting and openness”.



Morale - Columbia’s perspective

To get more insight on factors which affect crew morale we spoke to Norman Schmiedl, group director crewing with Columbia Shipmanagement,. Columbia is the fifth biggest ship management company in the world according to Lloyd’s List 2019 data, with 320 vessels in full technical management and providing crew management to a further 60.


Even before COVID, the company was taking something of a leading role in the industry in boosting crew morale, including providing crew with free telephone counselling services to discuss any stresses they might have, and making special effort to improve catering onboard.


Mr Schmiedl endorses the view that crew morale is a major growing safety concern for tanker operations. It could be looked at in terms of mental fatigue, the sense of exhaustion which arises when people find they are not in control of their lives  - both the plan for leaving the vessel and the plan for when they get back onboard, he says.


There is an increasing understanding that achieving safety “really boils down to the people,” probably more than procedures or safety standards, he says. It is people who “have to use these systems,” he says.


One of the main ways Columbia tries to maintain crew morale is “basically keeping crew busy” and encouraging social interaction onboard, so helping keep people’s minds off the situation, he says.


Columbia has put a lot of effort into maintaining high catering standards, including providing high quality food and training for shipboard chefs, and also ensuring that there is a variety of food, so it does not get boring, and gives people something to talk about.


Columbia has been encouraging crew to take part in fitness programs, which can have a competitive element. This also gives people something to talk about with each other. Most ships have gyms today, although the gyms are normally much smaller than on shore, typically with just a few devices, and maybe some equipment which can be taken into cabins.


In terms of social interaction, life on board ships is different to a few decades ago, when shipboard life was more sociable. The numbers onboard are lower, working days can be longer, and at the end of a working day crew want to take advantage of internet to talk to their family.


Crew also do not talk so much to each other about the equipment itself as they used to. In the past, they might discuss better ways to get performance from an engine. Today there is much more automation, and resolving a problem probably means reading equipment manuals rather than discussing with colleagues, he says.


Another way to improve crew morale is to keep crew in close contact with the company. The CEO Mark O’Neil releases personal videos to the crew twice a week, informing them on how the Covid situation is evolving, what is happening, and assuring them that the company understands they are facing very difficult times and is trying to do everything it can, although matters are largely beyond the company’s control.


Efforts are also made to encourage the crew to understand they are in a very unusual situation, and can contribute themselves by trying to be positive and resilient, and acknowledging that no-one on the ship or in the office is able to change the situation.


The company has a program for all company directors, both operational and non operational, call ships accordingly to a rota, so every ship gets regularly contacted.


Crew have provided feedback that they find the phone calls useful in keeping them informed, and understand the steps which the company is taking to try to push authorities in the respective countries to be more supportive of faster crew changes. 


In this way, it is able to take advantage of cheap and fast satellite communications available today. In the past, a shipping company would only communicate with the captain, perhaps asking him to distribute information onboard, and the message may get diluted. But today it is possible to communicate directly with everyone, and send them videos.


Software tools can support more informal discussions, including with people keeping in touch with the company through multiple channels, and electronic polls to find out people’s opinions.


Columbia is providing free internet to crew, to help them keep in touch with their families, and is seeing the usage grow. “Before,  crew were [typically] speaking half an hour a day to family and friends,” he says. “Now it is 1.5 hours.”


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