TALKING POINT: Are Vessel Safety Management Systems a viable launchpad for crew welfare?

February 24, 2022
Seafarer 5

Each month, we are sharing a discussion piece written by a member of the maritime industry offering a unique or interesting perspective on an aspect of seafarers’ welfare.

You can join the conversation around this month’s Talking Point on our social media channels – Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Tyler Mowry (above) sails as a Second Officer / Dynamic Positioning Officer (DPO) aboard drilling vessels in the Gulf of Mexico and abroad. He recently completed coursework and earned a master's degree in Nutrition. He is interested in helping to improve both the mental and physical health of seafarers, oilfield employees, and industrial workers who have limited access to quality meals, fitness facilities, and suicide prevention programs.

In the blue water shipping fleet, there are plenty of unknowns. We as seafarers become particularly used to changes in schedule, meals, scenery, and personnel every single day. In the more recent history of shipping, we're all aware of the joint efforts by international organizations to standardize what is considered to be safe aboard ships of all type and purpose. It would stand to reason that a sort of ‘level playing field’ would be valuable because it would give vessel owners and operators a more tangible set of expectations from flag states, class societies, and other stakeholders.

A less obvious benefit of more standardized practices involves the seafarer individually. With all the uncertainty mentioned above, it is important to have guidelines and documents that, simply put, make it easier for seafarers to do our job. It should come as no surprise that we as humans are far more effective when we understand not only what to do and how to do it, but that our leadership and management truly has our wellbeing at the forefront of daily operations. It should also be noted that seafarer well-being and profitability are not mutually exclusive of each other. The question then becomes: How do we transition both physical and mental health from something we simply talk about and (potentially) prioritize into a set of effective guidelines?

Among the resources we have available to us as seafarers lies the document that guides a particular company's visions, culture, and personnel. Of course, we're talking about the vessel's Safety Management System (SMS). The SMS outlines the expectations of vessels and their crews as well as safety and environmental practices that are required by regulatory agencies. Any given cargo vessel will have vast similarities between her SMS and that of other ships. However, there is an element of individuality that will change between companies and even between vessels. Essentially, this document is a comprehensive, auditable statement from the company stating: 'This is what we're going to do, and this is how we plan to do it safely and efficiently'.

I personally work in the offshore drilling industry as a second officer. In this environment, while not specifically referred to as the SMS by crewmembers, this set of guidelines truly dictates every action that every department onboard makes. Now, we can recognize that a drillship will certainly have a different dynamic than a blue water cargo vessel, both procedurally and interpersonally. The largest difference between our SMS and that of, perhaps, a container ship is the extreme specificity and detail. We refer to our version of the SMS multiple times per day for checklists, reporting, and policy information. It truly does accomplish the task of facilitating success in the workplace.

We have seen, during the recent pandemic, how it is extremely important to take care of oneself. Moreover, many companies ashore are quickly realizing that placing employee wellness higher in the pecking order results in not only a better work culture, but more money saved down the road. It is no different in our industry. Captain Gudgeon's recent ISWAN article specifically mentions a 'notable decline in the duty of care to seafarers shown by some employers'. This is unacceptable, and while there is no cookie cutter solution, it is time for employers to implement policy that places the task of improving the offshore work environment on the company rather than the seafarer.

Safety Management Systems provide an opportunity for shipping lines to commit to a culture of health and wellness aboard ships; to convey to the seafarer and the world that they are committed to improving onboard conditions in all aspects and facilitating excellence in the individual performance of sailors. More effective and frequent incorporation of mental health, nutrition, fitness, and emotional and social wellbeing into the SMS could very well result in industry-wide standardization in these areas. Ideally, we will reach the 'level playing field' mentioned above that will become as second nature as safety or environmental compliance.

Finally, the SMS may be an effective medium because it would not overburden the seafarer with new programs, paperwork, and procedures. Anyone who has been offshore knows that the profession, at times, has turned into more reporting and administrative tasks than anything else. Any changes to the SMS would simply be improvements to a well-accepted (and required) set of policies.

There is obviously no end-all answer to making life at sea easier. After all, it's important to recognize that even if every measure is taken to ensure quality of life in the offshore environment, seafarers are still subjected to long bouts of isolation, stress, and sleep deprivation. However, much like any problem onboard a vessel, identifying what exactly the issues are and ideas that might mitigate them may be the hardest part. The Safety Management System could provide a platform for owners and operators to solve these challenges.

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