Addressing bullying and harassment in the maritime sector

At a recent meeting of the International Maritime Organization’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC), the interests of the people - the seafarers - were recognized with the highest of priority to create a safer work culture on board ships for all mariners in support of human element aspects of diversity, equality, equity and inclusion.


In late April, the 105th session of the Maritime Safety Committee supported and approved a proposal to revise and amend Model Course 1.21 on Personal Safety and Social Responsibility to include elements of psychological safety and to deal with trauma and trauma response. The Committee instructed the HTW (Human Element, Training and Watchkeeping) Sub-Committee to develop and finalize, as a matter of priority, STCW (Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping) training provisions addressing bullying and harassment in the maritime sector, including sexual assault and sexual harassment. This work is going to be part of the “Comprehensive review of the 1978 STCW Convention and Code”.

It is rare that an IMO Model Course is taken forward with priority and is developed and amended in such a short timeframe. The urgency in development and finalization of STCW training provisions on bullying and harassment in the maritime sector rises from emerging and ongoing issues related to personal safety onboard vessels. Repeated issues of sexual assault and sexual harassment occur in the maritime sector, across all cultures, demographics, socio-economic groups and ages, in the same way as they do in wider society. These illegal behaviors and trends affect seafarers’ short- and long-term mental health, safety and well-being which in turn affects recruitment and attrition rates of seafarers.

In addition to instructing the development and finalization of an IMO Model Course on Personal Safety and Social Responsibility, the MSC designated a joint IMO/ILO tripartite working group on the issues. The objective of this joint group is to ensure a safe workplace for seafarers by tackling bullying and harassment in the maritime sector. This group will also work on providing recommendations for future steps, including the development of legislation, mechanisms and policies, and the launching of awareness campaigns by relevant stakeholders aimed at reporting and addressing these matters.

The positive response of IMO member states and Organizations on this topic demonstrates the recognition of a pervasive problem on many ships and a continued commitment to a vibrant, safe and supportive maritime industry.

The work emerged from a paper by the Commonwealth of Dominica submitted to the Sub Committee on Human Element Training and Watchkeeping in January 2022. A second paper, submitted to the Maritime Safety Committee in April 2022, was submitted by the Commonwealth of Dominica, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, ICHCA, IFSMA, InterManager, AMPP and IIMA. These documents raised awareness for the issue and proposed to amend and revise the IMO Model Course on Personal Safety and Social Responsibility (PSSR).

Revisions of the IMO Model Course on PSSR include expanding existing training on safe working practices, as well as including elements of psychological safety in effective communications and healthy human relationships on board ships to include and dealing with trauma and trauma response. The co-sponsors proposed to create a framework that establishes behavioral norms and supports a psychologically safe and just culture in the maritime sector to provide a safer working environment for all.

Since raising the issue at IMO in January 2022, a broader group of stakeholders started to collaborate to further refine the work in a COPE° (Center for Ocean Policy and Economics -a subset of The Northeast Maritime Institute) Working Group. This “COPE° Working Group on Psychological Safety and Sexual Assault and harassment in the Maritime Sector”, uses the UN framework to work on solutions to connect the industry objectives set out. Members of this COPE° working group include representatives from delegations of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Bahamas, and Brazil, along with large maritime industry company representatives, and several maritime NGO’s including WISTA (Women’s International Shipping and Trading Association), IHMA (International Harbor Masters Association), ISWAN (International Seafarers Welfare and Assistance Network) as well as subject matter experts on psychology, education and maritime safety who are sharing information, ideas, learnings and pooling resources.

The COPE° working group is driven by ethical and humanitarian-based values. Next to the work on the IMO Model Course, the group will work to evaluate and provide training options, designing free courses on Northeast Maritime Online (NEMO°) and investigating other training options. Harmonizing best practices, guidance documents, industry resources and studies are also part of the scope. Lastly, the group is focusing on raising awareness and is open to hear the voices of all people working in the maritime industry.

The work and plenary interventions of the COPE° working group at IMO inspired and incited other IMO member states and organizations to act. This resulted in the submission of several other papers for MSC105 on the same subject matter. The proposals in these papers resulted the designation of a joint IMO/ILO tripartite working group.

The positive outcome of the Maritime Safety Committee, and the historical decision to take this work forward with priority, demonstrates that there is support for honoring mariners globally. It shows that there is a way to facilitate procedures and the work of the IMO work to support the people it serves in a timely fashion.

The COPE° working group has already begun meeting to revise the Model and is expected to yield a work product for the next meeting of the HTW Sub-Committee, in view for adoption by MSC107 in May 2023. The meeting dates for the IMO/ILO tripartite are still to be identified.

This article is shared by courtesy of COPE° – – The COPE° Working group on Psychological Safety and Sexual Assault and Harassment in the Maritime Sector is hosted by Center for Ocean Policy and Economics, a subset of The Northeast Maritime Institute – College of Maritime Science.

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