This article is part of Evolving Threats to Southeast Asia’s Maritime Security, a series of analyses produced by experts convened by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

How have threats related to maritime occupational health and safety evolved over the last 20 years?

Maritime occupational health and safety (OHS) has been a longstanding problem in the shipping industry and poses an ongoing threat in Southeast Asia and the world. The International Labour Organization (ILO) reports that there is a lack of statistics in the area of maritime OHS due to the limited accessibility and reliability of reports on occupational accidents, incidents and diseases in flag states. Some of the well-recognized OHS risks unique to shipping include exposure to harmful ambient factors such as noise, vibration, lighting, ultraviolet lighting, non-ionizing radiation and extreme temperatures. There are additional risks such as working in enclosed spaces, dangers in using equipment and machinery, ergonomic-related hazards, and exposure to dangerous cargo and ballast, as well as biological or chemical agents. A major maritime OHS concern is fatigue (i.e. insufficient sleep, irregular and long working hours, high work demand, and monotonous tasks). Mental occupational health, communicable diseases, tobacco smoking, and alcohol and drug use and dependency are other examples of OHS issues.

The seafaring industry has faced similar OHS concerns over the last 20 years. However, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the lack of immediate and proper responses from states to some of the key maritime OHS issues and has elevated concerns about the working conditions of seafarers and their negative impact on the safety of shipping.

What are the primary governance tools that are being used in response to maritime occupational health and safety issues?

Maritime OHS is addressed within the four pillars of the international regulatory regime of shipping. The first three pillars are: (1) the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, 1974, as amended (the “SOLAS Convention”); (2) the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers, 1978, as amended (the “STCW Convention”); and (3) the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, 1973, as amended (the “MARPOL Convention”). These international instruments address the technical aspects of shipping and crewing by keeping abreast of required technological developments, increasing the competence of seafarers to meet the technical requirements of ships, and reducing marine environmental pollution. The fourth pillar to the regulatory regime is the ILO’s Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), 2006.

The MLC, which is considered the “bill of rights” for seafarers, includes standards and regulations with the specific purpose of ensuring “that seafarers’ work environment on board ships promotes occupational safety and health”. The MLC lists the responsibilities of flag, seafarer-supplying, and port states in implementing maritime OHS, as well as the responsibilities of shipowners and seafarers to comply with OHS measures. These responsibilities provide a check and balance to ensure that the rights of seafarers are upheld and that any compliance issues are reported to and addressed promptly by relevant authorities. The MLC has been ratified by most seafaring nations and major flag and port states, a number of which are in Southeast Asia. However, a study has shown that there are divergent views amongst seafarers on the impact of the MLC on their living and working conditions. [1] While some seafarers declared significant positive changes to their work, a majority suggests that their condition has only slightly or never improved.

What are the primary harms maritime occupational health and safety issues poses to regional stakeholders?

Human error in shipping and maritime accidents are the primary undesirable outcomes of inadequate OHS implementation. It is widely known that 80 to 85 percent of all maritime accidents are caused by human error. There are different types of human error in shipping that lead to marine casualties or near-casualties. Some errors are attributed to the master and crew, such as inattention, poor physical fitness, fatigue, excessive alcohol use, inadequate knowledge and experience, recklessness, poor decision-making, and complacency. There are organizational factors, such as unclear pilot-master relationship, poor operational procedures and ship system maintenance, inefficient bridge design, and lack of communication.[2] There are also external risks such as marine environmental hazards and maritime security threats such as piracy and armed robbery and terrorism.

The lack of effective implementation of the MLC also poses a risk to the region. There is a considerable degree of flexibility allowed for ILO members in implementing the MLC. A ship would only need to call into a lenient port to avoid strict compliance with OHS measures. This is a particular issue for vessels under 500 gross tons mass, many of which ply Southeast Asian waters, to which many of the provisions do not apply. However, working in a smaller vessel should not deprive any seafarer of their rights.

COVID-19 has brought to question the effectiveness of MLC to promote OHS and protect the rights of seafarers. How states dealt with seafarers at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that OHS as a human right remains an ideal, rather than a practiced norm. During the height of the pandemic, ships were unable to find ports of call, leaving hundreds and thousands of seafarers stranded on board ships, abandoned, or forced to work beyond the expiry of their contracts. Some could not get proper medical assistance because they were considered a danger to public health. The high rate of COVID-19 infection and low vaccination rate amongst seafarers also highlighted the little importance placed on the welfare of seafarers and our lack of appreciation for the obvious public health risks posed by the international nature of the seafaring industry.

The training and education of seafarers have also suffered due to COVID-19. The reduction of hands-on training for current seafarers, the untimely exit of more experienced seafarers from the industry as a result of stress and fatigue brought about by COVID-19, and inadequate training of new seafarers are unsettling for an industry with such a high level of human-related risk leading to maritime accidents.

The experiences of seafarers during the pandemic have similarities to their plight post 9/11. Instead of seeing them as partners in addressing international terrorism, seafarers were treated as if they were part of the threat while implementing post-9/11 security measures in some ports.[3] This is a current concern as there has been an increase in piracy and armed robbery attacks during the pandemic. While our understanding of maritime awareness has expanded and evolved in the last decades to include elements that impact beyond national and regional security, the issue of maritime OHS requires us to look inwards to address a neglected and enduring internal threat.

How has maritime awareness developed to improve maritime health and occupational safety?

One of the key developments in maritime awareness in the seafaring industry is the adoption of the ILO Convention 185 on Seafarers’ Identity Documents (Revised) 2003. The SIDS Convention provides that the verification of a valid seafarers’ identity document shall be carried out in the shortest possible time. Although the main purpose of the seafarer’s identity document is to provide a positive verifiable identification through biometrics to enhance maritime security, the universal recognition of an identity document helps facilitate the freedom of movement of seafarers for the purpose of shore leave, transit, transfer, or repatriation. Electronic documentation has never been more important than in the time of the pandemic, where surfaces can be a medium for virus transfer or contamination. However, one of the key challenges in implementing the SIDS Convention is its low ratification rate, in addition to the lack of capacity of states to adopt compatible technology that will allow mutual recognition of electronic documents. The obligations of states in the same convention to grant shore leave and repatriation will also be undermined if other states refuse access to seafarers on safety and health grounds.

More recently, international organizations, the shipping industry, and shipowner and workers organizations have come together to adopt policy statements, guidance, and recommendations to support seafarers during covid-19, as well as establish institutions to aid and intervene for seafarers. These developments include recognizing seafarers as essential workers and are vaccinated as a matter of priority, are medically fit and have access to medical care, and that ships and port facilities adopt sanitary measures to adequately protect seafarers from covid-19.

What additional context is necessary to improve maritime health and occupational safety

An approach to addressing the social aspects of shipping by increasing the standards of OHS might help reduce maritime accidents and address security threats. It may be seen as a costly exercise, but it has long-term benefits to regional and global maritime security. For major labor-producing countries in Southeast Asia, such as the Philippines, Indonesia, and Myanmar, there needs to be stricter regulation of maritime and educational training, as well as the protection of rights of seafarers in relevant legislation and collective bargaining agreements. For major flag states such as Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam, there is a need to ensure that, in addition to compliance with OHS requirements under the MLC, these flag states strictly enforce provisions in seafarer employment contracts such as hours of work, repatriation, compensation, and prompt response to any case of abandonment of seafarers. Policies on the protection of and provision of support to seafarers in incidents of terrorism, piracy, and armed robbery should also be adopted. Major port states such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam should ensure that all vessels calling into their ports comply with the standards of maritime OHS. And port states should reliably provide emergency assistance to seafarers.

[1] Marina Liselotte Fotteler, Olaf Chresten Hensen, and Despena Andrioti, “Seafarers’ views on the impact of the Maritime Labor Convention 2006 on their living and working conditions: results from a pilot study,” 2018 International Maritime Health 69(4): 257-263.

[2] Javier Sanchez-Beaskoetxea, Imanol Basterretxea-Iribar, Iranzy Sotes, and Maria de las Mercedes Maruri Machado, “ Human error in marine accidents: Is the crew normally to blame?” 2021 Maritime Transport Research 2: 100016.

[3] See Carolyn Graham, “Maritime security and seafarers’ welfare: Towards harmonization,” 2009 WMU Journal of Maritime Affairs 8(1): 71-87

About Mary Ann Palma-Robles

Mary Ann is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security (ANCORS), University of Wollongong. Her research interests include international fisheries law and policy, ocean policy and management, maritime security and regional marine governance.