For the past year and a half, we’ve been living with COVID-19–adapting to new ways of life, putting on masks, and living in isolation. Aside from these inconveniences, the pandemic has spotlighted the topic of mental health. Living in isolation for prolonged periods has given many working outside the maritime industries a glimpse into what the life of a seafarer must be like. With limited connectivity and accessible resources onboard, seafarers are expected to meet the shipping needs of the world while spending most of their time disconnected from it.

According to the International Chamber of Shipping, about 90 percent of world trade is carried by the international shipping industry, making seafaring an essential service that we all depend on. Yet, despite the critical role that seafarers play in our global supply chains, it is astonishing that so little attention is given to their welfare. It may come as a shock to learn that in the past year, we have observed a stark increase in the number of seafarer suicides and attempted suicides.

Though not a perfect indicator, mentions in the press of seafarer suicide rose by 42 percent in 2020 compared to 2019 (Source: Analysis by Thetius, Meltwater, 2021). Given the high-risk nature of seafarer jobs and the ongoing pandemic, it is paramount that we do whatever we can to protect the health and safety of those on board.

Increasing digitalization in shipping, such as onboard applications of AI and increased automation, is likely to change many seafaring roles and in some instances reduce the number of personnel required on board for daily operations. Smaller crew numbers will reduce opportunities for social interaction and social support–which could, in turn, exacerbate feelings of isolation and affect mental welfare.

So how can better connectivity onboard help improve the welfare of seafarers?

“A fair future for seafarers?” is a thought-provoking study by Inmarsat, a world leader in satellite communication, and Thetius, a maritime innovation consultancy, that highlights the condition of seafarer’s welfare and explores how we can do better to support them and the industry in between now and the future for the industry’s so important date of 2050. Here are three examples mentioned in the report, that show how technology can help.

Firstly, during this pandemic, we have witnessed the emergence of telemedicine as a resource-effective way to connect patients with medical professionals. Today, seafarers can receive immediate medical attention as and when it is needed–even when they are on board.

Likewise, with better connectivity onboard, seafarers can connect with online seafarers’ charities and support groups ashore. While this may not resolve individual situations entirely, there is strong evidence that keeping those onboard connected can curb feelings of isolation.

Thirdly, we are convinced that for the crew, the ability to maintain a level of social life, and being connected with the home base, via the use of social media, applications, and the internet will play a crucial role in the avoidance and/or the reduction of stress levels.

Finally, while we can’t be certain of the degree of automation in the maritime industry in the next three decades, we can be certain that remote monitoring and pilotage will become more widespread. Improved connectivity on board will make it possible to connect seafarers with specialists and technicians ashore, to deliver ‘live video’ training for professional development. These AR and VR training will teach seafarers the necessary skills to deal with any potential safety breaches, all within a simulated environment, giving them the room to practice and make mistakes without sustaining any physical injuries.

Technology may not improve all aspects of seafarer welfare, but it can certainly provide seafarers with support and better equip them for their lives at sea. While 2050 may feel like a long time off, I would encourage everyone in the maritime industry, if they haven’t already, to start their digital journey today. For the sake and safety of our seafarers. We cannot afford to wait.

Ronald Spithout is the President of Inmarsat Maritime.

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ORIGIN: How data and technological innovations are driving the future of logistics and freight management

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