News 01 Dec, 2021

It’s time for a wellbeing-first approach to casualty investigation

Ben Beesley
Ben Beesley

There has been an increasing recognition of crew welfare issues across the industry. However, the broader risks associated with these issues are often less widely understood. The consequences of inaction could be wide reaching and dire.

At its conference in September 2021, the International Union of Marine
Insurance (IUMI) reported that it had seen evidence that the number of near-miss shipping incidents is increasing as a result of seafarer stress, anxiety and fatigue. This is a particularly worrying finding for those of us who deal in risks – and mitigating them.

Incidents are usually the result of a series of errors; they are
rarely caused by a single mistake. When we consider how a
casualty happened, it is usually possible to trace the root cause
back to several discrete – often individually minor – events.
However, the aftermath of these situations is anything but
small. The industry must ensure that all processes, especially
those where a crew is facing additional levels of stress or
trauma, are handled in a way that puts welfare at the forefront.

Stresses and critical incidents can have a dramatic impact
on mental health, which can be just as significant as that of a
physical injury. Furthermore, these forces have worsened over
the past 18 months; seafarers who have had contracts extended
beyond their initial expiry date as a result of the pandemic are
still feeling the side effects of the crew-change crisis, while shore
leave issues and isolation have persisted.

Emotional injuries can be difficult for ship owners and operators
to recognise. So, where should the industry focus its attention?

Post-casualty investigations

United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) article
94 says that “each state shall cause an inquiry to be held... into
every marine casualty or incident of navigation on the high seas
involving a ship flying its flag and causing loss of life or serious
injury”. A “serious injury” is typically defined by a flag state as
one that incapacitates someone to such an extent that they
cannot function normally for more than 72 hours and the injury
starts within seven days of when the injury was suffered.

However, in practice, “serious injuries” are more frequently
diagnosed when there is an obvious physical impact such as loss
of eyesight, a broken bone, or unconsciousness. This is due, in
part, to a generally limited understanding of the symptoms of
mental injury, which makes them difficult to diagnose without
professional assistance. Indeed, a mental injury may only be
discovered months after an event – often after deteriorating,
without appropriate treatment.

A key role of the post-casualty investigation is to analyse what went wrong and develop a solution
so that it doesn’t happen again. Yet, repeatedly, the role of stress, fatigue and mental health is not recognised as an issue and learnt from

Much of the damage caused in a marine casualty is
immediately visible, be that property damage, physical injury,
or operational disruption. However, certain conditions in the
aftermath of an incident, such as post-traumatic stress disorder,
can have a delayed onset. The long-term impacts of stress
and trauma are more difficult to understand and often less
immediate – both for a seafarer and for a ship’s operations.

Ordinary post-casualty interviews tend only to focus on damage to physical assets and injuries, and do not account for this emotional trauma, or the high-stress environment where seafarers are naturally left to worry about blame, responsibilities and outcomes. This can mean that interviews might not yield sufficient, high-quality post-incident information and evidence as shipowners, insurers and other stakeholders would hope. It can also create more stress for a seafarer already coping with the effects of trauma.

All stakeholders will benefit from assessments of casualty 
severity placing more emphasis on understanding seafarers’ mental health, well-being and how they have been affected by a casualty or serious incident at sea. This can be achieved by adapting approaches to ensure that interview processes gather the best information while protecting the wellbeing of mariners and signposting them to appropriate support.

Moreover, the prevention of future casualties can be 
enhanced by addressing the trauma of prior incidents. A key role of the post-casualty investigation is to analyse what went wrong and develop a solution so that it doesn’t happen again. Yet, repeatedly, the role of stress, fatigue and mental health is not recognised as an issue and learnt from. So, how can we improve post-casualty investigations?

Trauma-informed interviewing in a marine setting

We need to bring appropriate methods from clinical psychology
into maritime post-casualty investigations, while also maintaining
a realistic understanding of work and life as a mariner.

Trauma-informed interviewing in a marine setting, or TIMS
for short, is an approach that combines enhanced investigative
interviewing techniques with expertise in ordinary human
psychological responses in post-critical incident situations.
It is an innovative approach to crew interviewing and the surrounding wellbeing issues that may arise following a casualty. Approaches like this should become standard practice across the industry.

TIMS was developed by Captain Terry Ogg, a casualty
investigator and master mariner who spent 16 years at sea,
and Dr Rachel Glynn-Williams, a leading consultant clinical
psychologist. Initiatives using this approach, such as Qwest
Care, use TIMS investigators trained in awareness of human
trauma responses and how to take these into account, to offer
first-line basic stress management strategies during interviews.
This delivers more complete and better-quality information and
evidence from crew interviewees.

It also uses a unique interview model that has been developed
for both in-person and remote interviewing and which can be
delivered in either setting. This enables a rapid assessment to
be carried out online or in person in a very short time frame.
It also actively supports crew well-being post-casualty, provides
support and guidance for all crew and a pathway for ongoing,
more structured psychological support where required.

The industry has taken a real step forward in recognising some
of the welfare issues that seafarers face, and understanding
the impact of working conditions on mental health while
at sea. There is a clear commercial reason for shipowners,
managers, operators, insurers and other stakeholders to act to
improve the support that mariners receive – but there is also a
moral imperative. Post-casualty investigations are a key area
where processes can be improved to account for mental health,
and investigators must focus on reducing stress, identifying a
wider range of mental injuries and signposting seafarers to
appropriate resources.

“There is a clear commercial reason for shipowners, managers, operators, insurers, and other stakeholders to act to improve the support that mariners receive – but there is also a moral imperative”

Taking the evidence-based TIMS approach, which incorporates
clinically proven techniques, can ensure that investigators gain
more information that reduces future risk, safety is enhanced
and welfare is prioritised.