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Trapped at sea: protecting seafarers during COVID-19

Lloyd’s Register Foundation grantholder CHIRP Maritime are leading an international campaign to get seafarers recognised as key workers by governments around the world. They have published a new series of papers looking at the impact of COVID-19 on seafarers and the shipping industry.

Across the world, 95% of all products and raw materials are distributed by shipping. This makes maintaining and facilitating the uninterrupted flow of maritime trade absolutely vital to keep society functioning.

However, the nature of the shipping industry means that it is largely ‘out of sight and out of mind’, with the majority of the general public unaware of how much their daily life depends on seafarers keeping global supply chains open. This is the primary reason why many governments have failed to recognise seafarers as key workers, meaning they are not afforded special dispensations, such as right to travel, that would mitigate their hardship during the COVID-19 crisis.

This exclusion from the international response means that around 150,000 seafarers are stranded at sea, unable to repatriate to their home countries. As the CHIRP Maritime Programme, a confidential safety reporting initiative supported by Lloyd's Register Foundation have investigated, this could lead to long term physical and psychological implications for crew members. 

Pioneering the latest calls to grant seafarers key worker status are Captain Jeff Parfitt, Director of the CHIRP Maritime Program, and Dr. Claire Pekcan, professional maritime psychologist. Their papers, published by CHIRP Maritime, are raising awareness of the impact of the virus on the seafaring community.

The reports first put the nature of seafaring work in context. Crew members are required to work irregular hours, with working weeks often exceeding 60 hours, putting them at greater risk of physical harm from industrial fatigue. It’s also noted that seafarers lack a clear separation of work and recreation and are isolated from their families for long periods of time, which can affect their emotional wellbeing.

In light of this, two projects were commissioned to investigate seafarer mental health, one carried out by Yale University funded by the ITF Seafarers’ Trust, and the other carried out by the Seafarers’ International Research Centre in Cardiff, funded by the Institute of Occupational Health (IOSH). The key findings suggest that out of 1572 seafarers surveyed, 25% of respondents could be suffering with depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation. Crucially, respondents overwhelmingly associated the extension of a voyage as a trigger for mental health issues.

In interview, Dr. Claire Pekcan suggests that the COVID-19 crisis will “exacerbate the problems and the demands that are placed on seafarers and reduce their support mechanisms”, with increased exposure to aspects of their job that can cause harm and reduced opportunities for relief. 

“It is vitally important for their mental wellbeing that they know there will be a time where they will be relieved.” 

The reports discuss the significant logistical issues to getting seafarers home, including lack of availability of air travel to repatriate seafarers, localised entry restrictions to reach specific ports, and quarantine on arrival. These issues also affect the thousands of seafarers on land who are willing but unable to relieve those on board. Many of these seafarers will work on a contractual basis and will therefore be unable to receive pay, eliminating the principle means of income for their immediate and extended families. 

The consequences of this for the shipping industry are clear. The reality of quarantine aboard a ship means many seafarers will be isolated from their families for longer, suffer more financial uncertainty, and work beyond their designated contracts. This exposes the seafaring workforce to risk of physical and mental ill-health.



However, these psychological implications can be somewhat mitigated. CHIRP Maritime are calling on shipping companies to assist seafarers, treating them in a pragmatic and compassionate manner with regards to financial support, reduced hours and access to regular home contact.

Dr. Claire's verdict is clear: “If they’re denied support, if they’re just expected to carry on working as if nothing was happening, then the negative impacts that we already know happen will be exacerbated.”

Dr. Claire Pekcan and CHIRP Maritime’s work is vital in raising the awareness to the plight of seafarers during the COVID-19 crisis. In partnership with CHIRP, the Lloyd's Register Foundation are supporting unilateral granting of key worker status to seafarers and promoting their claim to the dispensations key workers are afforded. This measure will in turn mitigate a great deal of their hardship and keep the seafaring workforce safe.

“Our priorities and all our energies must be put into getting them the key worker status” ... “Bringing this to the media’s attention and the world’s attention is hugely important for seafarers to be recognised for the vital role that they do.”

Captain Jeff Parfitt, Dr. Claire Pekcan and CHIRP Maritime have produced guidance and advice for ensuring the wellbeing of seafarers along with useful resources, which are all available on their website https://www.chirpmaritime.org/publications/.

Their continued work in partnership with the Lloyd's Register Foundation will be vital to protecting the welfare of seafarers and making the industry a safer place during the COVID-19 crisis.

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