Seafarer Wellbeing: Why Do People Do What They Do? Dr Grahaeme Henderson - London International Shipping Week 11th September 2019

Ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for inviting me to speak here today. It is an honour to be with you and to be talking about seafarer wellbeing…a subject that has huge importance to us all.

 Shell is proud to support the Mission to Seafarers, Seafarers UK, the Sailors’ Society, and the Apostleship of the Sea. We have worked closely with these charities for many years and have seen first-hand the excellent work they do to support seafarers across the world.

 I would like to extend my immense thanks to these organisations for taking the opportunity to hold this Conference in London International Shipping Week. We all know that talking about mental health can be challenging, sometimes uncomfortable, but vital.  Our understanding and awareness of mental health is taking strides forward, particularly with recent campaigns that we have seen in the media and important events like this.

 In this speech, I want to focus on why wellbeing is so important and the impact that it has on safety. And I want to extend this to start to ask the question and understand “why do people do what they do?”

 Everyone in the shipping industry worldwide is impacted by this issue. As such, I hope that this meeting catalyses an increased focus on the mental health and wellbeing of our seafarers.  And, I will share some examples of the work that we have been doing on this at Shell and some exciting new projects in which we are a partner.

 Global trade has transformed life as we know it today and shipping has been the backbone of this trade. More than 50,000 ships sail our oceans every day, transporting goods from all corners of the earth.

 With the global population growing by 200,000 each day, cargo movements by sea have more than doubled since 1990, from four to ten billion tonnes. Shipping is vital for the world to function, from the food that we eat, the goods that we use every day and the energy that we need.

Yet, shipping has one of the poorest safety records of any industry in the world. A UK study showed that the shipping industry has a safety performance 20 times worse than for the average onshore worker and 5 times worse than the construction industry. During the last 10 years, an average of 113 ships around the world have been lost each year, and many thousands of people killed and seriously injured.

In addition, research has shown that almost 6% of deaths at sea are attributable to suicide and this increases dramatically if suspicious cases when seafarers go missing are taken into account. This is at least six times higher than the suicide rate for the UK population.

The impact of these terrible statistics is felt deeply and widely.  The death of a loved one, a colleague or a serious injury stays with us forever. 

 Along with many of my fellow shipping leaders, I have the vision of a zero-incident industry. And we are making good progress. Businesses have recognised that improving their safety performance is not just fundamental to their licence to operate, but also good business. Part of this is that we perform better and make fewer mistakes when we are mentally and physically healthier.

Human error is the cause of more than 75% of accidents in commercial shipping. Tiredness, inadequate procedures and improper supervision can increase the risk of human mistakes by up to 50%.

So, we urgently need to look at the seafarer wellbeing behind those statistics. We need to ask ourselves “why do people do what they do?” and how we can positively influence them.

Last month, I visited two of our chartered ships, and talked to the officers and crew members. We spoke about a lot of subjects including safety and then I asked about mental health.

A very noticeable change took place. The conversation became slower, words were more difficult to find. The discussion became uncomfortable. They talked about how this was a serious issue and also about how they try to help each other. But I sensed that they did not know how to approach this subject.

This barrier can cause significant risks to our people.  Let me take one area as an example:

A couple of years ago, some Shell managed ships suffered a series of small oil leaks in the engine room. The importance of this was that these leaks could have resulted in an engine room fire, with far reaching consequences.

In conducting a deep investigation, we found that the issue was at the flanges where two pieces of pipe were joined with bolts.  We found that a number of replacement bolts had been fitted during maintenance activities that were smaller than specification resulting in leaks. Also, where the correct bolts had been used, some had not been torqued or tightened as specified.

Our immediate reaction was to add more procedures and checks – we examined some 13,000 bolts and put in place additional procedures, to ensure the correct bolts and torqueing were used in the future.

Putting in place these additional checks and procedures to address the issue was of course important, and it is a standard industry response. But, we also went further. We asked, “why do the people do what they do?” Why did trained people with clear instructions and the right tools, not undertake the task as required?

During the past year, working together with my Shell Shipping & Maritime team and the Shell Health group, we have carried out extensive research into the link between seafarer wellbeing and human error.

We reviewed nearly 700 academic papers and more than 60 industry publications, conducted over 30 hours of interviews and analysed 340 pages of feedback from industry experts.

Our research demonstrated clear links between health-related aspects and adverse incidents at sea.

The results showed five key areas of influence on wellbeing:

Firstly, fatigue…this might be the result of different shift patterns, long hours, or insufficient rest.

Secondly, the environment that the seafarers are working in…the physical aspects, and separation from home, and healthy living.

Thirdly, the nature of the role the seafarer is conducting…the individual responsibility and workload, the personal fulfilment and job security, job satisfaction, reward and recognition.

Then there is the leadership on the ship and in the office…taking personal accountability for wellbeing, setting the right culture and tone, and having the right skills to recognise issues and knowing how to act.

And finally, the networks that surround the individual…family, friends, and work colleagues on the ship…and effective communication, as well as the cohesion and social interaction of the team.

After identifying these five strategic areas and the key contributing factors, we were able to start to build a model of how these areas influence safety.

For example, if we take fatigue which strongly influences wellbeing…this leads to a human response…being stressed, tired, disengaged…leading to a behavioural outcome…the decisions and the resulting errors that an individual makes.

The more that people have had insufficient rest, are stressed, under time pressure, or poorly trained…or have personal issues, bad news from home… the more likely that there are human errors. This raises the risk of catastrophic accidents occurring.

Two years ago, we launched HiLo, focussing on high impact, low frequency safety events which may result in serious injury or death. It is a mathematical risk-analysis model that uses near-miss data to highlight a pattern of events that, if left unchecked, could lead to a major incident. In essence, HiLo assesses the risk of serious accidents before they happen.

We have seen some very impressive results from those companies using HiLo, including reducing the risk of lifeboat accidents by 72% and the risk of engine room fires by 65%.

And now we are combining HiLo with our research into seafarer wellbeing, to develop the first ever human error model.  I am delighted to be a part of the launch here today.  This new model will allow shipping companies to better understand the wellbeing of the crew on their ships and highlight the human errors that cause more than 75% of accidents at sea.

Here is a short film about this work:


 I hope you see that this is an exciting new development and I hope that many of you might consider if this could work for your company.

 If we can understand the wellbeing of the crew, we can make proactive interventions to address their needs and make improvements. HiLo provides important data for us to make decisions - but training also plays a critical role. 

Shell is developing eight wellbeing training programmes for seafarers. This training can be conducted on board ships to start to address the five key areas that influence mental wellbeing.