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Updating safety management systems: protecting crew from Covid-19

Posted: 26/08/2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused significant issues for crew members on board vessels across the globe, and the impact it has had on their physical and mental health has been the focus of some attention. The spotlight is on employers of crew, as well as owners and operators of vessels, to ensure that they and their vessels have in place a system that prioritises the health and safety of crew members and ensures that they are protected, so far as reasonably practicable, not only from the everyday dangers they face at sea but also from infectious diseases such as Covid-19.

Relevant law

UK flagged vessels must comply with the standards established by the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 (as amended) (MLC).

The starting point in respect of the safety and health of crew is Article IV of the MLC, which provides that:

  • every seafarer has the right to a safe and secure workplace that complies with safety standards;
  • every seafarer has a right to fair terms of employment;
  • every seafarer has a right to decent working and living conditions on board ships;
  • every seafarer has a right to health protection, medical care, welfare measures and other forms of social protection; and
  • each member state shall ensure that the seafarers' employment and social rights are fully implemented in accordance with the requirements of this Convention. 

Regulation 4 of the MLC sets out the standards that must be met and provides guidelines to assist owners and operators. However, recent events have had a significant impact on what factors must be taken into account if owners and operators are to meet those standards.

The Merchant Shipping and Fishing Vessels (Health and Safety at Work) Regulations 1997 provide further statutory guidance. Under the regulations, employers must:

  • ensure the health and safety of workers and other persons so far as reasonably practicable (regulation 5(1));
  • prepare (and revise as often as may be appropriate) a written policy with respect to health and safety (regulation 6(1));
  • make a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks of the health and safety of workers arising in the normal course of activities (regulation 7(1)); and
  • provide health surveillance as is appropriate (regulation 11).

In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, all but the most robust health and safety systems on board vessels will require updating. Owners, operators and employers of crew must now consider what steps they are expected to take to ensure that their crew is safe so far as reasonably practicable. There is now a growing body of information available on which to base a health and safety system in a post Covid-19 world.

Guidance for owners, operators and employers on infectious disease

In respect of infectious diseases such as Covid-19, the primary aim of a health and safety system must be prevention. Knowledge and advice changes frequently, but those preparing such systems would be well-advised to consider the following sources:

It has been acknowledged that even the best prevention plans provide no guarantee that there will not be an outbreak of Covid-19 on board. Accordingly, each health and safety system must also have a plan in the event that there is an outbreak. When developing an outbreak response plan, owners, operators and employers should consult the:

There is also guidance in respect of specific scenarios that vessels and crew face. For example, the IMO has released specific guidelines for ensuring a safe shipboard interface between ship and shore-based personnel when a vessel calls at a port.


Owners, operators and employers must now consider all information and guidance available to the industry to ensure that their health and safety policies and safety management systems are reviewed in detail and updated accordingly. It should also be noted that the advice listed above is regularly updated and so it is essential that safety management systems are reviewed and updated on a regular basis in line with the advice at that time.

Owners, operators and employers that fail to follow the guidance referred to above increase the risk that there will be an outbreak on board their vessels or amongst their employees. This may create significant operational difficulties (such as being refused entry to ports), legal claims being brought by any affected crew members and, in the most serious cases, an investigation by the Maritime Coastguard Agency or other flag state authorities, which could potentially lead to the withdrawal of a vessel’s maritime labour certificate for breach of seafarers’ living and working conditions.

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