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The impact of technology on crew welfare: a focus on mental health.

To what extent does technology play a role in improving seafarer wellbeing? LR’s Marine & Offshore Director, Nick Brown investigates.

There can be no underestimating the importance of seafarer health and wellbeing, particularly when it comes to safety within the maritime industry. Technology needs to assist, and support crew rather than making them feel more stressed or anxious. Data collected by the UK’s Health and Safety Executive in 2017 shows that some 15 million working days were lost to work-related stress, depression or anxiety. The impact of employee wellbeing can be easily seen across all sectors so it’s important to look at how other sectors are using technology to address mental wellbeing and how this could be adopted for seafarers’ mental health and welfare.

In January 2018, the World Economic Forum estimated around 8.4 billion connected devices were in use with many crew members using Facetime, Skype and WhatsApp to connect with family members across the world – yet these apps can also be a vehicle of bullying and isolation. The number one seafarer need nowadays is internet access for email, social networks, access to information and for keeping on top of their finances. The same applies for anyone working away from home for extended periods – whether they are on oil rigs or in remote research facilities. Internet access is no longer optional, it’s essential.

Technological advances aren’t just affecting the way we live – they can affect the way we perform our tasks and the time it can take to do them. This can be can be easily witnessed in maritime; with the move from manual operations to the number of automated systems, and fewer processes now relying on physical ability, with brain power being more important. These positives and negatives should be considered when assessing how some technology can be used to address health and wellbeing at work. Firstly, it can help us avoid problems, for example mechanical and software technologies (including advanced automation), and can reduce workload and stress by removing difficult or dangerous work. The downside however is that there can be a danger and/ or fear of more technology being imposed for the sake of it. LR funded work at the Seafarers International Research Centre found that sometimes those onboard can feel those onshore are “meddling” in the work of the ship through email and enterprise resource planning (ERP), whilst being unaware of ship location, time zone or weather.

How do you know if crew are fit, well rested and ready to perform? Technology can be used to sound the alarm when people are tired, and their performance could create risk. Using data on fatigue and eye-hand co-ordination can pull people out of dangerous situations and help employers identify patterns of performance and isolate risk hotspots. It can also be used to minimise administrative tasks, allowing for work to be more flexible and create a margin of safety/comfort. However, when we must contend with multiple sets of data from several devices - it is easy to overlook what really matters and there are times when we all struggle to stay focused on the job and the critical tasks in hand.

Technology can also be used to detect problems either with health and wellbeing or activities that may compromise safety. From fatigue and alertness monitoring to keeping track of body temperature or the location of impending hazards. This is becoming more routine in the workplace, across many industries including mining, logistics and construction. Canaries, which were once widely used for detecting noxious gases in mines, were replaced by wearable gas detection devices in 1986. Maritime is all too familiar of the hazards of confined spaces and this technology is becoming more widely used.

Tracking the emotional state of workers can also be completed through technology. Visual tracking, whether its facial recognition, iris recognition or voice analytics, can assess whether we or our customers are happy, stressed or sad. This has found a place in the finance industry, using voice and text analytics to determine state of mind characteristics to ensure high risk clients are receiving the right level of attention. However, data protection and privacy mean there is a need to assure confidentiality both for reporting of things that concern people and for seeking assistance. We must also factor in cyber security.

At LR, safety plays a central role in what we do. We care about employee wellbeing and seek to share our expertise and do the right thing. LR’s Safety Accelerator programme has been developing technology using vision analytics for mental capacity, assessing fatigue monitoring and MLC compliance as well as equipment alarm fatigue. We are working on another project to reduce the mental needs from staff, using analytics to digest the slew of alarms a crew member encounters in high stress scenarios.

As with all of challenges and opportunities presented by technology in maritime today, this is not something to be addressed solely by shipowners, charterers or classification societies. Only by working together to share experiences, solutions and ideas can we ensure that the impact of technology on seafarers can lead to positive change.


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