Long hours and poor environment leave health and wellbeing of maritime workers all at sea

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The health and wellbeing of people working in safety-critical industries, such as seafaring, is hugely dependent on their role, working hours, environment, social opportunities and level of support from leadership.

This is according to research undertaken by the Institute for Employment Studies and Shell, which found these five factors, either taken on their own or in combination, can have a significant effect on both physical and psychological health among those in maritime and other industries where safety is paramount.

Their report, The journey from health and safety to healthy and safe, gathered information from around 110 publications and 28 interviews with experts from the maritime industry and other safety-critical sectors, including aviation, nuclear and construction, to establish which factors had the biggest impact on workers’ health.

It cited a recent survey of 1,000 staff by maritime trade union Nautilus, which found a quarter of seafarers screened positive for signs of depression; 26% reported feeling ‘down, depressed or hopeless’ on several days over the previous two weeks; and 20% felt down, depressed or hopeless every day.

Five main themes that influenced health and wellbeing were established:

  • Fatigue – impact of long working hours, changes in working hours, shift work and overtime
  • Working environment – heat, noise, ship movement, food quality, length of deployment, access to gym and exercise equipment
  • Role – level of autonomy, task and skills variety, workload, job satisfaction and rank
  • Socialisation – social interaction on board, cultural awareness, transient nature of crews on a ship, and openness of communication
  • Leadership – the level of support offered and influence over conditions and culture.

The report encouraged employers in safety-critical industries to adopt the SCARF+ model when assessing the impact work has on health and wellbeing. SCARF+ identifies status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness, as well as other factors specific to maritime, such as noise levels and on-board facilities, as key to individuals’ perceptions of threat and reward,

Lead author Dr Zofia Bajorek said: “Seafarers face multiple risks to their health and wellbeing which can affect both safety and performance, as well as the damage that can be done to individual lives and livelihoods.

“Being able to predict weak signals in the working environment and to know which factors in which set of circumstances are likely to be most important is invaluable to protect and enhance the health and wellbeing of staff.”

Brian Horsburgh, general manager HSSE, Shell Shipping & Maritime, added: “We commissioned this report as part of our work on supporting the mental and physical health of seafarers and are using its insights to help us build practical wellbeing programmes for use on ships.

“Reducing accidents at sea is critical and to achieve this we must support seafarers to be both healthy and safe by maintaining the focus on promoting good mental and physical wellbeing.”

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