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Seafarer Working Conditions and Practices

Various laws protect seafarers' rights in the United Kingdom. This help guide explains how to respect and observe seafarer working and living rights while working at sea.

Topics covered include conditions of employment and living conditions for seafarers. Check the practices on health and medical care and working at sea with potentially dangerous cargo.

The working and living rights that all seafarers have entitlement to include:

  • An employment contract
  • Accommodation
  • Food
  • Medical care

The definition of a seafarer is a person who works on board a seagoing ship.

Typical examples include the master, crew, and self-employed contractors.

But, bodyguards, entertainers, shopkeepers, and hairdressers can also meet the classification of seafarers.

The definition of a seagoing ship relates to any vessel that is heavier than 500 gross tonnes, or one that is on:

  • A domestic journey from the coast of the United Kingdom.
  • An international voyage or traveling from a foreign port.

Note: The Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) came into full force for the United Kingdom in August 2014. The ‘MLC 2006’ sets forth minimum standards relating to the working and living rights of seagoing personnel.

Seafarer Working Conditions

To work at sea as a seafarer you will need to meet some minimum requirements on things like minimum age and medical certification.

Minimum Age for Seafarers

As a rule, the minimum age to work as a seafarer is sixteen (16) years old. The age limit extends to eighteen (18) if the work involves any hazardous tasks or night work.

Many of the manual tasks conducted on a ship can be hazardous if they are not carried out properly. Hazardous tasks can include hauling, lifting, mooring, and towing.

Thus, as an employer of any seafarers your responsibilities will include ensuring that your staff:

Note: Being in charge of a ship means you need to have an ENG1 seafarer medical certificate. Likewise, some seafarers will need to possess a Certificate of Competency (CoC) to carry out certain duties on board.

Conditions of Employment

In the United Kingdom, the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 provides minimum working rights for seafarers.

Working Time Regulations (WTR)

Working as a seafarer on a seagoing ship means you would be entitled to:

  • A minimum of ten (10) hours of rest in any given 24 hour period.
  • Seventy seven (77) hours of rest in any seven (7) day period.
  • At least four (4) weeks of paid annual leave.

Note: The Merchant Shipping Regulations 2002 provide further details on working time regulations for seafarers.

Human Behaviour in the Shipping Industry

The term ‘human element’ is used a lot in the shipping industry. It covers anything that relates to the interaction between humans and any system aboard ships. Thus, the topic represents high importance in maritime safety and security.

Typical factors affecting the human element on board ships include:

  • Methods used in recruitment and selection policies
  • Crew competence, training, and experience
  • Conditions of service, motivation, and morale
  • Design, construction, and ergonomics
  • Standards of build and certification
  • Maintenance
  • Stress and fatigue
  • Security
  • Living and working conditions
  • Manning levels and hours of work
  • Management policies
  • Safety management systems
  • Operational systems
  • Organisational and safety culture
  • Culture of continuous improvement and workforce engagement

Note: The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) website has further information on ‘The human element: a guide to human behaviour in the shipping industry’.

Seafarer Safe Working Practices

Under maritime regulations, all UK ships need to carry copies of the ‘Code of Safe Working Practices for Merchant Seamen‘. An exception to this rule applies to fishing boats and pleasure vessels.

Protective Personal Equipment (PPE)

Employers of seafarers must provide them with suitable protective equipment if they will carry out dangerous or hazardous tasks. Read chapter 4 of the ‘Code of Safe Working Practices for Merchant Seamen’ for extra details on PPE.

The Safe Manning of Ships

As an employer of seafarers you must ensure the ship has enough properly trained and certificated officers. The vessel must operate safely at all times and there must be sufficient food to cater for the number of seafarers serving on board.

Note: Further guidance is available in section 2 of the ‘Merchant Shipping Notice 1767 (M) Hours of work, safe manning and watchkeeping’.

Ship Noise and Vibration

Seafarer employers must also carry out certain types of risk assessment. As such, you would need to identify who may be at risk from noise or vibration during the course of their work. Risk assessments help to show what steps to take to reduce or remove this type of risk.

Living Conditions

Since the 7th of August 2014 in the United Kingdom, the living conditions of workers at sea have been covered by the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) 2006.

Health and Safety

MLC law covers seafarers’ food and catering conditions as well as health and safety rules on ships. As such, as an employer you must provide your seafarers with:

  • Safe working places and environment.
  • Safe machinery and equipment.
  • Health and safety training, instruction, supervision, and information.
  • A health and safety policy.
  • Protective clothing and equipment where necessary.
  • Information for workers about the findings of their risk assessment.
  • Information on what qualifications any temporary workers must have.
  • Information about their activities and staff to the company.

Risk Assessments on Ships

Either the employer or the ship owner would need to conduct a risk assessment on any vessel that has seafarers working onboard.

New or Expectant Mothers

Women of childbearing age may be employed as seafarers. But, you would need to conduct a risk assessment to identify any potential hazards that are likely to affect a new or an expectant mother.

What if you find a risk that you are unable to remove? In this case, the employer can suspend a new or expectant mother who is working as a seafarer on full pay, if (any):

  • They inform you that they are pregnant.
  • They have given birth in the last six (6) months.
  • They are breastfeeding.

The Seafarer Safety and Health Branch of the Maritime and Coastguard Authority (MCA) has extra information on the specific health and safety rules for new and expectant mothers working at sea.

Seafarer Safety and Health Branch
02380 329 247
Information on call charges.

Note: The rule applies no matter whether any females are pregnant at the time of the risk assessment or not.

Additional Dangers Onboard Ships

Illegal Drugs

There are severe legal implications for seafarers and for employers if authorities find the unauthorised presence of drugs on board a ship. As a rule, the most serious cases can result in:

  • Detention of a ship
  • Heavy fines
  • Imprisonment
  • The death penalty

Note: Review ‘Marine Information Note (MIN) 375 (M+F) Occupational health and safety leaflets and posters’.

Fumigating Cargo Spaces

The employers of seafarers working on ships with pesticides on board must make sure:

  • There is adequate breathing aids provided to seafarers when checking fumigated cargo bulks.
  • They inform the destination port 24 hours in advance of receiving this type of cargo.
  • The personnel who check any relevant cargo bulks at port are properly trained to do so.

Note: Review ‘Marine Guidance Note (MGN) 86 (M)’ for further recommendations on the safe use of pesticides onboard ships.

Potentially Dangerous Cargo

There are specific requirements for the employers of seafarers on board who need to deal with certain toxic cargo or equipment. You can find further information and guidance from:

  • ‘Merchant Shipping Note (MSN) 1521 Possible hazards to seamen from oils used on ships’
  • ‘MSN 1428 Asbestos – health hazards and precautions’
  • ‘MSN 1254 Use of solid carbon dioxide’
  • ‘MSN 646 Toxic substances in electronic devices’
  • ‘Code of safe working practices for merchant seamen’
Petrol Generators

It is not uncommon for large ships to use petrol generators. Any that do, need a risk assessment to ensure that the generator provides:

  • Adequate ventilation and alarms (e.g. for carbon monoxide alarms)
  • Enough power to cater for accommodation and for lighting

Health and Medical Care

The responsibilities of employers extends to the protection of their seafarers, by:

  • Providing immunisations for certain types of infectious diseases and making arrangements for infection control. Review ‘Marine Guidance Note (MGN) 399 Prevention of infectious disease at sea by immunisations and anti-malaria medication’.
  • Ensuring hygiene measures are effective and they minimise the risks of infection. Review ‘MGN 38 (M+F) Contamination of ships’ air conditioning systems by Legionella Bacteria’ and ‘Communicable diseases’.
  • Having the right medical supplies on board and available as well as knowing the routes and destinations of the vessel.

Seafarer Working and Living Rights in United Kingdom