COVID-19 safety: Seafarers report contradictions from ship and ports

Crew members wearing protective suits as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19. Credit: Credit: Robin Utrecht/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

As the COVID-19 crisis continues into its seventh month, seafarers have told Safety at Sea (SAS) that they are still facing restrictions and inconsistent policy implementation onboard and onshore.

The majority of the seven seafarers who spoke anonymously to SAS said they feel that the policies implemented by shipping companies and port authorities in response to the pandemic were “knee jerk” reactions.

Some seafarers told SAS of the closure of certain common areas onboard, to limit the interaction between new on-signers and crew already onboard. However, they were expected to work together on ship operations as normal and carry out safety drills together. When questioned by SAS, the seafarer explained the decision was made via an email sent by the ship management company. They noted that the autonomy of masters in their decision making is constantly being eroded by the shoreside.

Seafarers also reported mixed messaging from ports. Personnel operating in ports were afraid to interact with seafarers who had been onboard since before the beginning of the pandemic, and who had a low likelihood of having the virus. However, one crew member spoke of stevedores and other port personnel going onboard not wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) and not using the hand sanitiser provided to them on the gangway. This is at odds with circulars provided by companies expecting crew to keep the ship in almost hospital like conditions of cleanliness, and yet where the risk is greatest, transferred from port to ship, workers are not being informed or following correct COVID-19 protocols.

Certain crew members raised similar concerns over their experience of joining a vessel; in the transportation vehicle they were expected to cover up completely in what they described as “a hazmat suit or similar”, while the driver wore no PPE and neither did the agents who greeted them.

Several seafarers also told SAS said that shipping companies did not pick the most direct routes for repatriation of crew, suggesting cost was behind the decision. “I know of some crew who have had to endure up to 72 hours of travel to return home, while there is a direct flight to their home country. I understand cost saving, but I feel crew welfare needs to take a stronger stance in this scenario,” one seafarer told SAS.

Others spoke of experiencing up to four flights changes. Many expressed frustrations at these travel decisions, given the budget that was saved by companies during the first quarter of the year where there were no crew changes taking place.

While the comments from the seafarers paint a worrying picture, there is news of shipping companies carrying out crew changes safely amid COVID-19. Shell’s Shipping and Maritime department have previously publicised its processes to ensure safety in international crew changes. A crew change was carried out in the UK in early May 2020, which involved using local taxi services that complied with COVID-19 requirements to avoid infection, according to the company. A Shell representative said that the procedures were devised and implemented to avoid infection during these crew transfers, with full cooperation of the Terminal and Port Authority.

There are other maritime companies working to enable crew changes and put the issue in the spotlight. This includes InterManagers’ Maritime Champions Club, which continuously shows where crew changes are happening around the globe to encourage maritime companies to follow suit. GreyWing has also created a platform to highlight the best location along a ships’ voyage for both on-signers to join and off-signers to be repatriated home in the most cost-efficient way.

Certain ship management companies, such as Thome Group, have set up an Emergency Response Management Team to deal daily with the changing COVID-19 situation and review best industry practices, government and WHO information to help provide guidance to seafarers and vessels during the pandemic and evaluate and implement new initiatives. This included the procurement of PPE for all seafarers sailing on its vessels, the extension of hotline services (via cooperation with ISWAN) providing access to psychologists to help crew deal with the situation. The Group also extended advance payments to seafarers who were waiting to join their vessels, as well as providing financial assistance to those unable to join due to suspended crew changes.

All the seafarers that spoke to SAS agreed that the management companies had provided them with sufficient PPE. There was also some positive feedback; some seafarers were lucky to be able to be repatriated home without an extension to their contract, while others spoke of the increased connectivity onboard. Some praised the ship managers, despite the lack of flight tickets and postponement of repatriation, for remaining in constant contact with crew and provided extra provisions such as barbeque staples and extra soft drinks.

“We Implemented seafarer competitions onboard to increase engagement and help relieve the stress and anxiety of seafarers during the pandemic, for example, art competition with prizes for the winners,” said Claes Eek Thorstensen, president and CCO, Thome Group.

For crew still impacted by the COVID-19 restrictions and unable to return home, the situation remains stressful and is taking a toll on their mental wellbeing. “Crew who have been onboard and not signed off for a long time are not the same. Some are muttering to themselves, some wanted to be home as they wanted to start a family in this time, some are even saying they are receiving messages from their wife saying they will kill themselves if they do not return soon,” one seafarer wrote to SAS.

A recent UK virtual summit on crew changes, which took place on 9 July, prompted Maersk to demand direct action be taken by the government to allow crew changes. Such actions included safe corridors be established between key countries; to approve flights linking major ports and home air hubs, and to issue the necessary visas or waivers in these corridors to allow crew safe passage.