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Occupational Health & Safety | Transport & Logistics

The importance of seafarer wellbeing – and how to achieve it

9 Jun 2022, by Amy Sarcevic

With long stints away from home, lengthy working hours, and disruptions to their Circadian rhythm, seafarers often face unique challenges in terms of managing their mental health.

Currently, 40 percent of workers in the maritime industry live with symptoms of depression or anxiety, and between 1960 and 2009, 5.9 percent of seafarers globally died by suicide.

Thankfully, federal initiatives like ‘Seafarer Wellbeing’ are making positive inroads on this issue. However, with some of the highest rates of workplace mental health injury – and a reputation for stigma – it appears more work needs to be done to prioritise wellbeing in the maritime sector.

Postgraduate student researcher Morgane Sheppard believes that, while federal initiatives are important, simple interventions that encourage camaraderie should not be overlooked by maritime operators.

As the daughter of a Harbour Master, Ms Sheppard has spent her life around the maritime community, witnessing first-hand the difficulties maritime workers face – a background that inspired her to pursue maritime internships and, later, postgraduate research in seafarer wellbeing.

Through both her research and lived experience she has observed how small gestures from employers can make a meaningful difference to the mental health of staff.

“During the time I spent at Montreal Seafarer Centre, for example, I observed a close-knit home base. Staff would have dinners or spend evenings together, and shuttle to and from the ship in groups,” Ms Sheppard said ahead of the IHMA Congress, hosted by Informa Connect.

“Encouraging things like this, that promote a better rapport between workers, gives people an open, free space for conversation. I have seen how beneficial small things like that can be. It alleviates stigma and fosters meaningful connection – both of which are precursors to good mental health.”

Alongside team building, Ms Sheppard believes further efforts to improve diversity within the sector are key.

“The maritime industry has always been open to change and improvement, but the people coming into the industry now [as the sector embraces a more diverse workforce] are a real asset. They are open to new things that can be very beneficial for the maritime community,” she said.

“For example, [people with] backgrounds in psychology, logistics, digitalization, kinesiology or even ergonomics [are coming into the sector] all of which bring different viewpoints and ideas into the maritime community and improve it in their own ways.”

Safety implications

It is not just individuals that benefit from wellbeing measures and initiatives. Mental health has been linked to a wide range of physical safety issues, including attention and protocol compliance.

Unhappy workers are less likely to execute safety procedures thoroughly, and are at increased risk of error when performing tasks. Over time, chronic stress can also lead to medical conditions that carry the risk of sudden incapacity – such as heart attack, stroke or sleep apnoea.

Within maritime, this is no small matter. Slippery surfaces, ongoing motion, and heavy machinery make for a treacherous environment and some concerning OHS statistics. With 14.5 out of 100,000 incidents resulting in death, fatal accidents rates within the industry are 21 times greater than the national average in Britain; and 4.7 times higher than that of the construction sector.

Financially too, the impact can be significant, with falls, trips, slips and lifting accidents averaging $65,000 per incident.

“Time and time again research has shown the importance of sound mental health in alleviating OHS incidents,” Ms Sheppard said.

Reflecting on the latest research findings and talking more about the priority areas for seafarer wellbeing, Ms Sheppard will present at the IHMA Congress later this month.

This year’s event will be held 27-30 June at Kuala Lumpar, Malaysia.
Learn more and register here.

In recognition of the important role of seafarers, the IHMA Congress Official Nominated Charity for 2022 is the Mission to Seafarers. To join the IHMA Congress Mission to Seafarers appeal, feel free to show your support here.

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