Mentally safe shipping – Seaworthiness and Sao Paolo

Society thinks that mental and physical health belong hand-in-hand. Christian Ayerst, CEO of Mental Health Support Solutions, questions whether shipping does too.

“Healthy body, healthy mind,” muttered grandma whilst knitting.

“Mens sana in corpore sano,” barked my schoolteacher as we performed unenthusiastic burpees in the mud.

“Work, rest and play,” advised Mars in the 1990s, to sell their (delicious) chocolate snack.

Their common feature? Society thinks that mental and physical health belong hand-in-hand.

So after 10 years in the shipping industry, it worries me when people think that safety means the physical fitness of the vessel and crew – and nothing else.

That’s incorrect. Today – a vessel is seaworthy if due diligence has been exercised in respect of its physical and mental fitness. Period.

And who should make decisions on mental fitness? Qualified mental health professionals – in exactly the same way as professional doctors make decisions on physical fitness.

Protect your crew and shield yourself from liability in the future

Take the ship which suffers an incident – for example an over-pressurised cargo tank.

Expensive claims are made. The operator produces maintenance records showing that the equipment was regularly overhauled and the crew fit enough to carry-out this task.

But investigation reveals no sustained approach to mental health onboard or within the organisation. The crew weren’t regularly trained to recognise bullying, and refresher training on handling stress, anxiety and cultural challenges wasn’t refreshed.

The critical allegation? The vessel was unseaworthy. Seaworthiness requires the operator to exercise ‘due diligence’ to make the vessel and her crew seaworthy in all respects. Definitionally, “competent crew” includes proper training – and because the law’s approach to seaworthiness is flexible and dynamic, in 2021 this must now proactive mental health training and support.

The lawyer argues: mental health training and support may not have prevented the incident – but would have made it less likely to happen, or the impact decreased.

The judge’s decision? Mental health of the crew may have played a role in the incident. Due diligence towards the crew’s mental health was not exercised. The vessel was unseaworthy.

Not good news for operators – or shipping.

Operators and their insurers face significant liability. Financiers demand a review of the banking warranties given. Key customers threaten to cancel long-standing contracts. Social media buzzes with staff anecdotes of malpractice. The CEO fields questions about a corporate culture lacking in basic standards. Once again the shipping industry is decried as lacking morality and humanity.

All because someone refused to treat mental health as seriously and professionally as society treats physical health.

So when I’m wearing my CEO hat and preaching mental health proactivity – it worries me when companies breezily claim that mental health is “not our responsibility” or “our crew can talk to volunteers”. Naivety about responsibility for mental health, or a misconception that we don’t need professional meant health support – a is fertile breeding ground unseaworthiness and unsafety.

What saddens me the most? This is so easily avoidable. All it needs is a rigorous support structure in place, led by mental health professionals who are independent of organizational pressures and leanings.

The result? The judge rules that the company exercised due diligence to make its operations mentally safe, the incident could not have been reasonably avoided and liability is defended or diminished.

Is implementing a professional mental health support structure expensive, time-consuming and creating unnecessary hassle? No. It doesn’t need to be expensive. It’s widely available and quick to implement. And the benefits of investment in long-term mental health brings are significant and proven. Mental Health Support Solutions work on a daily basis with responsible partners wanting to firm-up the resilience training given to their staff, or companies wanting to quickly benchmark their approach against industry standards. The first evidence of due diligence – taken by initiating contact.

What’s the lesson here for owners/operators? Mental health and physical health are equal partners. If you don’t have a long-term and professional culture of mental health in your organisation – your vessels probably aren’t seaworthy. Start setting standards for mental health today – protect your crew and shield yourself from liability in the future.

And if we’re going to Latinise proactivity towards mental health? Be like Sao Paolo:

Non ducor, duco
(I lead, I am not led).

Back to top button