Crew suicides increased in last decade, study finds

Sharp increase in recorded suicides from 2009 onwards may indicate poor recording practices prior to 2009.

A study by the Seafarer International Research Centre (SIRC) has observed an uptick in crew fatalities since 2009, as well as an increased number of suicides in certain quarters.

Research involved collecting data from seven of the top 30 flag administrations – anonymised as Atlas, Bellatrix, Capella, Diadem, Electra, Furud, and Gomeisa – over the period between 2000 and 2016. However, interpretation of the data was clouded, SIRC explained, by patchy provision of data from the various involved parties.

Nevertheless, based on the data they did have, the authors of the study concluded: “It is… very likely that the increase in fatalities in the period 2009-2016 is genuine.” This, SIRC said, reversed what may have been a period of “genuine decline” in the average fatalities between 2000 and 2008.

Observing a large gap in fatality data recording from one of its key respondents, Atlas, between 2006-2014, SIRC concluded that the true number of fatalities between these years was in fact “significantly under-represented”.

Of the 1039 fatalities over the seventeen years that were covered in the study, 38 were recorded by respondents as suicides. Of the data that did exist, “the data paint a grim picture if taken at face value” – however, SIRC was quick to point out that various administrations do not distinguish between suicides and accidental deaths in their records.

“Despite the sharp increase in recorded suicides in the period 2009 onwards, the evidence strongly indicates that this reflects poor recording practices prior to 2009,” the researchers noted.

“Unfortunately, data analysis is complicated by the fact that many administrations do not appear to collect, or record, any data on seafarer fatalities and injuries,” SIRC director Professor Helen Sampson explained to SAS. “Furthermore, those which do collect information on seafarer deaths and injuries employ different categories in recording information. Some, for example, conflate suicides and accidental deaths whilst other record these separately. This makes it very difficult to accurately collate, compare, and interpret data.”

SIRC expressed its concern that the increasingly popular move of reflagging fleets to open registers was “particularly problematic” for those who would determine the risks to seafarers and make recommendations for action to be taken. This comes down to a “lack of available data concerning both mortality and seafarer populations” as well as shortcomings in “the provision of access to it.”

Commenting on the findings, Katie Higginbottom, head of ITF seafarers’ trust told SAS, “SIRC has done a very admirable job in trying to extract some meaningful insights from a limited and challenging set of data. The conclusions are concerning, but the bigger glaring problem is the fact that maritime administrations either don’t collect or don’t share information on this very important issue.

“There’s much talk throughout the industry about addressing mental health of seafarers, building resilience and so on, but it has a hollow ring considering the unwillingness to share fundamental data about accidents and near-misses, injuries, fatalities or suicides.”

A completely new data-collection regime is needed for meaningful action to be taken on seafarer wellbeing, Higginbottom argued. “Basic data from a reliable source – which should be flag states – has to be the backbone for analysing trends, identifying risks and taking corrective measures. Logically it should be collected, held, and shared with interested academic institutions – this framework already exists in the IMO – but judging by this report, the states themselves aren’t willing to provide the information.”