The Psychosocial Risks that Seafarers Face


Published Jun 10, 2016 2:41 AM by Dimitrios Lyrakos

Over the past few years, the OCIMF's Tanker Management and Self-Assessment program, and others, have made recommendations about the psychometric evaluation of seafarers. However, there is still quite strong skepticism among the maritime industry, and there is little research, if any, about the psychosocial risks faced by seafarers, even though they are among the first to be experience occupational stress, burnout and various other psychological problems.

Psychosocial risks in the workplace

In the past, the work environment has been examined through key dimensions of job quality such as career development, non-discrimination, flexibility and security. Three major forces have led to significant changes in the world of work in industrialized countries over past decades: demographic shifts, increased economic globalization and rapid technological change. These changes have affected health and safety at work and contributed to the emergence of many psychosocial risks. 

Psychosocial risks described by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work have been found to affect seafarers more than most occupations. These include differentiation in forms of employment contracts, job insecurity, work intensification, high emotional demands at work and poor work–life balance. 

The agency has identified 12 psychosocial risks. 
1. Psychological Support
2. Organizational Culture
3. Clear Leadership & Expectations
4. Civility and Respect
5. Psychological Job Fit
6. Growth and Development
7. Recognition and Reward
8. Involvement and Influence
9. Workload Management
10. Engagement
11. Balance
12. Psychological Protection

One of the unique characteristics of seafarers is that while on board a vessel they work, rest, collaborate and interact all within the same space and with the same people. Hence, they lack the opportunity to relax and take some time out from a person or situation that has stressed them. Work schedules that include long working hours and shift work can leave them with the feeling that they are always at work. 

Experts have identified several characteristics of physical environment (e.g. inadequate equipment availability, suitability or maintenance, lack of space, poor lighting and excessive noise to be psychosocial risks that have the potential to cause harm.

There are various aspects of organizational culture which can be experienced as stressful by workers which have the potential for harm. These include notably poor communication, poor leadership and lack of definition of, or agreement on, organizational objectives.

Bad interpersonal relationships at work are recognized psychosocial risks. These include: social or physical isolation, poor relationships with superiors, interpersonal conflict, lack of support, and bullying, harassment, and violence at work, especially on a vessel, where the people are confined on a limited space and interact all the time with each other. These critical issues increase the possibility of problematic relationships in seafarers’ professional and personal life.

Risk Management 

The effective management of these risks should be a priority for policymakers, employers and employees. Managing and consequently preventing psychosocial risks can ensure a healthier, smoother running, more productive and safer working environment, where crises can be dealt with more easily and more affectively. 

In the E.U. alone the cost of accidents because of psychosocial risks was estimated in 2010 at 25 billion euros, an amount that could be saved if assessment and prevention measures had been taken. Therefore, proper measures to prevent those psychological risks from escalating can be a great value for money for the maritime industry.

One of the most practical models of risk management comprises the following steps: 

•    Identification of risks
•    Assessment of the associated risk
•    Design of reasonably practicable interventions
•    Implementation of interventions
•    Monitoring and evaluation of effectiveness of intervention 
•    Feedback and reassessment of risk
•    Review of information and training needs of employees

One of the essential drivers of continual improvement in the psychosocial work environment is the assessment of psychosocial risk factors. This not only includes the current mental and physical state of the examinee, but also risk factors that could create a risk. This proper assessment is one of the cornerstones for prevention and, essentially, to have a crew on a vessel that is fully functional, not without problems, but with the necessary skills and abilities to effectively deal with them. 

Over the past few years, Filistos Psychosocial Testing & Consulting has provided assessment and consultation to maritime industries about psychosocial workplace risks. What we have seen, and most importantly, what our clients have seen, not only from the maritime industry, is that dealing preventively on this particular field is far more cost effective, safe and productive, than ignoring a possibility and dealing with the problem after it appears. Consequently, assessing the mental, cognitive and behavioral state of a seafarer, regardless of his position, assures the safety of the crew and the ship, and it can prevent any company from liability.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.