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Why seafarers are key stakeholders for shipping’s decarbonisation

Why seafarers are key stakeholders for shipping’s decarbonisation
October 9, 2023

As the effects of decarbonisation are increasingly felt within the maritime industry, a just transition could benefit significantly from having seafarer feedback engaged from ship design right through to updated operations, says Seafarers Hospital Society CEO Sandra Welch.

Seafaring is set to change significantly over the coming decades as the maritime industry pursues decarbonisation goals — bringing in changes to the fuels bunkered and used onboard, scaled up technology and digitalisation, and a greater incorporation of automation onboard vessels of all types.

These changes will significantly impact seafarers and their workplaces, yet crew members are curiously absent from our industry’s conversations about the future of an industry that is relies on their contributions.

As stakeholders, crew have a vested interest in safe and sustainable solutions, supportive green technologies, and improved ship design. Their roles onboard mean they are intrinsic to discussions about technology onboard, impact of regulations, what is needed to support recruitment and retention, and how best to streamline operations for a more efficient future.

Our recent panel discussion on ‘Decarbonisation: Sustainability and Crewing enroute to 2050’ sought to address this gap by bringing together a range of expert stakeholders to the table — including experienced and serving seafarers — to highlight the opportunities that remain unexplored in maritime’s Just Transition.

The devil in the details

The macro level challenges of decarbonisation have been widely discussed, but difficulties at the micro level must be a key consideration too. Kongsberg Maritime’s Head of Creative Design, Captain Jaquelyn Burton brought up this subject by raising the questions we often fail to ask — what are the tasks people do that will change with this transition? How will these changes affect their safety?

When exploring these pertinent questions, we may find that the rise of new fuels, automation and digitalisation will create more work for the seafarer. For future vessels, this leaves crewing scales as a “hot potato”, according to Captain Pradeep Chawla, CEO and Founder of Maritime Knowledge Ltd and Chairman, GlobalMET. It is imperative that shipowners and operators have a clear understanding of the combined operational demands of new vessels and technologies so that enough crew are employed to safely operate ships.

Our moderator, Catherine Logie, Director of Direct to Consumer Services at Ocean Technologies Group said thast educational technologies can help support a Just Transition. Online learning platforms reduce some of the traditional barriers to learning and replace distant crewing offices and training facilities with 24/7 access for individuals with the same high-quality assessment, learning, training, simulator and certification tools, without the need to travel. On the cost front, online learning can dramatically cut training expenses which will increase in importance in tandem with training requirements.

When it comes to crew welfare, a focus on the details is already a differentiator for shipping companies and ship managers. As Yrhen Bernard Sabanal Balinis, IMO Goodwill Maritime Ambassador and Chair, Royal Institute of Navigation (Younger Members Group) put it, mental health, work-life balance, and mentoring are no longer just buzzwords, they are metrics by which younger generations of workers are vetting the companies and industries they choose to work in. This includes seafarers, and will necessitate greater focus and improvements to meet market demand for recruitment and retention.

Training demands

The necessary pace of change to meet 2050 decarbonisation targets brings with it the need to train, retrain and upskill seafarers the world over. The industry may agree on the need for training and education as a Just Transition, but Captain Chawla noted that a critical area of conflict continues to remain unresolved — who should pay for this training?

The costs of widespread training will be substantial, and as Captain Chawla noted, specific training in areas like bunkering new fuels may well prove mandatory for seafarers before joining crews for certain types of vessels. Will seafarers end up shouldering half of the cost for the courses they need to access employment? And how is this likely to impact our existing issues with adequate skilled crew members?

I found that many of the points raised resonated with key pressure points notes during our research for the ‘Seafarers Health: Research to Date and Current Practices’ report. While the report focused primarily on seafarer health and well-being, we found that a repeated key barrier to the implementation of recommended practices were the short-term costs involved. The question of who would bear those costs often stymied the discussion, and made it difficult to seek resolutions.

There remains no consensus within the realm of seafarer health provision as to whether the costs should be met by charterers, owners or the crew themselves. Are we set to encounter the same barriers to training around future fuels and new technologies? Our industry is unlikely to proceed until we recognise these key impasse points and create collaborative solutions to tackle them. And we can only truly begin once we have all stakeholders represented at the table.

Succinctly cutting to the heart of the matter, Balinis said that the latest generation of seafarers want to be active stakeholders in the industry, rather than passively having decisions that undercut their careers shoved down their throats.

Regulatory pressure

Regulation sets the pace for global advance on the decarbonisation of shipping. As a result, ongoing updates to the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) are essential to progress matters relating to seafaring and decarbonisation.

Helio Vicente, Director of Employment Affairs at the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) said he thinks strengthening the STCW framework is fundamental for the safe and smooth transition of the maritime industry. He emphasised that this update necessitates not only the addition of additional competencies to support shipping’s aims, but also the removal of now superfluous requirements. This balance will help focus information, preventing seafarers from baulking at overwhelming training requirements while advancing safe and sustainable operations.

The entirety of our panel was in agreement that proficiencies such as soft skills are increasingly essential and should be included in STCW revisions. Hearkening back to Balinis’ points on the importance of proper crew welfare provisions, Vicente pointed out that the addition of soft skills to the scope of STCW is likely to be significant for maritime’s ability to support seafarers from new and existing recruitment pools. Logie highlighted that this is already a direction in which we are seeing industry movement — as the Paris and Tokyo MoUs have already prioritised communication skills as part of 2022’s Concentrated Inspection Campaign (CIC) on the STCW and the IMO is debating the inclusion in STCW of psychological safety, mental health and wellbeing, including sexual assault and sexual harassment (SASH).

Our own work supporting seafarers supports these conclusions. A greater emphasis on soft skills goes hand-in-hand with instituting a “culture of care” in shipping — a top-down and bottom-up approach where mental health support provision and items like anti-bullying policies are the norm. We know such frameworks and policies are valuable: not only are seafarers actively advocating for their inclusion, but Environment, Social, Governance (ESG) criteria have also prioritised strong and effective workplace policies, particularly for new, green business investments.

New relationships

While most discussions on decarbonisation focus primarily on new fuels, there are also significant gains to be made in efficiency by simply reassessing existing design for vessels and onboard technologies. Captain Burton pointed out the value in having seafarers involved in the design of the new decarbonised fleet of ships, particularly when it comes to designing for safe daily operations and ease of use. Collaboration has been the watchword of decarbonisation, and there is no reason that this should not extend from the shipyards all the way to the seafarers that will operate the ships, she said.

Decarbonising ship designs also creates the opportunity to address longstanding issues, such as reducing the impact of noise and vibration endured by crew while onboard. While good quality equipment can help mitigate noise-induced hearing loss, crew also report long term effects on health. These can limit their ability to pass medicals, reducing our pool of highly-skilled and experienced seafarers crewing our vessels.

Notably, in 2023 the International Maritime Organization (IMO) drafted revised guidelines for ship design and construction (SD 9) to reduce underwater noise caused by commercial shipping. While this is intended to address adverse impacts on marine life, this may also have a positive impact on crew health and well-being.

Collaboration between ship and shore must be an ongoing process, with operational feedback from seafarers considered in future revisions of technologies and layouts. As Captain Chawla said, this is a challenging process as no current frameworks exist for taking operational feedback from ships to classification societies and shipyards.

The relatively uncharted territory of decarbonisation offers an unprecedented opportunity to progress and evolve existing systems and frameworks — if we have the right information to hand. Welcoming seafarers to the table weighs those odds in our industry’s favour.