Nova Scotia

COVID-19 creates new hardships for some cargo crews stuck aboard ships

Cargo ship crews ferrying goods around the world are facing increased strain as ship operators consider keeping them at sea longer during the COVID-19 outbreak. It comes at a time when restrictions and concerns around the virus keep crews from leaving their vessels while in port, according to a union that represents seafarers.

'It's the seafarers and the transport workers of the world that are keeping food on the table'

The CMA CGM Libra, show in Halifax, holds approximately 11,400 shipping containers. Crews on cargo ships like this are dealing with increased isolation because they have to give up shore leave in some areas and may have to stay at sea longer. (Port of Halifax)

Cargo ship crews ferrying goods around the world are facing increased strain as ship operators consider keeping them at sea longer during the COVID-19 outbreak.

It comes at a time when restrictions and concerns around the virus keep crews from leaving their vessels while in port, according to a union that represents seafarers.

That means some seafarers sailing long distances could spend close to a year onboard their vessels, said Jim Given, president of the Seafarers International Union of Canada. 

"What helps us keep our sanity is the ability to get off that ship and go for a walk or go to a mall," said Given. 

Seafarers make sure goods get safely from place to place. They don't load or offload the vessels. That's done by longshoremen. 

Jim Given is president of the Seafarers International Union of Canada. (Submitted by Seafarers International Union of Canada)

According to estimates, 90 per cent of the everyday goods used by Canadians are carried on ships at one time or another. The work of seafarers is considered essential because of that.

It's hard work. Most seafarers spend an average of three months onboard a ship, then get one month off.

But there are some crews that can spend up to nine months aboard ship.

With fears of crews being struck down by COVID-19 and crippling the shipping industry, some companies are looking at extending the period seafarers stay on the water to reduce the risk of exposure, according to Given. 

"If you extend that into another month or two where you're looking at someone being onboard for almost a year, the stress factor and the fatigue factor is just a little too much for people to handle," he said. 

A tug boat guides the Ever Ultra container ship clear of the docks at the port of Vancouver in this file photo. Cargo crews are responsible for transporting most of the goods Canadians use everyday. (David Horemans / CBC)

Extending the time crews spend at sea is something that has caught Chad Allen's attention. He's director of marine operations with the Shipping Federation of Canada, a trade association that represents the international cargo fleet in Canada.

"Some companies are looking at those options," said Allen.

"It comes back to keeping that ship a healthy ship, and I think that maybe what some organizations may be looking at is to keep that consistency and keep that ship operating and avoid having the virus onboard the vessel."

As a former seafarer, he said the isolation can be hard, but many seafarers may choose loneliness rather than risk going ashore and catching the virus. 

Cargo ships aren't exactly luxurious. Some of the newer vessels have weight rooms, recreation facilities and satellite TV, but not much else. 

Wi-Fi is limited and cellphone service is spotty or non-existent depending on location. That can make it hard for crew members to keep in touch with family, said Given.

Chad Allen is director of marine operations for the Shipping Federation of Canada. (Submitted by Chad Allen)

The union and shipping companies worldwide are trying to find a way to balance the health and safety of workers with the need to keep goods moving. That includes discussions about how long seafarers can stay on ships, said Given. 

The isolation is already starting to weigh on some seafarers, as ports like Singapore have ordered crews not to leave their vessels. The union has advised its members not to leave their ships in places like New York City out of fear of contamination.   

"So you are isolated onboard, so the stress factor is high," said Given.

"Our guys are dealing with it. They're used to this. This is what they do for a living, and they know how important their job is right now because without them people don't get what they need."  

The union and shipping companies have installed phone lines for employee assistance that crews can access to better cope with the stress. 

Shore leave for seafarers in Canada is still going ahead.

Transport Canada is requesting that all ports, terminals and marine facilities across the country continue to grant shore leave to seafarers, according to a ship safety bulletin issued in March.  

But shore leave will be refused if a seafarer shows signs of the virus.

Seafarers are being advised not to leave their ships in ports like New York City, while some ports like Singapore aren't allowing crews off their ships. This file photo shows the CMA CGM Libra cargo ship docked in Halifax's port. (Steve Farmer/Port of Halifax)

Access to shore leave for seafarers is "an important element of their health and emotional security, as well as quality of life," said the bulletin.

Given said that what really worries people in his industry is the possibility of a COVID-19 outbreak onboard a ship. 

"Because when you look at social distancing, it's pretty hard to do onboard a ship," said Given. "They're contained environments."

Each worker is screened before boarding a ship. If they have any symptoms similar to coronavirus, they are paid to stay at home, said Given.

To cut down on the risk of exposure, only crew members are allowed aboard ship. The only exception is for emergency personnel during a crisis.  

A truck passes by some of the many containers that it tows on a daily basis at Vancouver's port in this file photo. Cargo containers move everything from medical supplies to food around the globe. (David Horemans/CBC)

Ships also have emergency protective equipment onboard, and vessels are being cleaned more often to prevent the virus from accumulating on surfaces.

Transport Canada is carefully watching all foreign ships entering Canadian waters.

Foreign ships need to provide 96-hours of notice prior to arrival and confirm the health of the crew, according to an email from Annie Joanette, a spokesperson for Transport Canada. 

Last month, the cargo vessel the Siem Cicero was denied entry into the Port of Halifax after crew members showed symptoms consistent with COVID-19.

Given said it's important that seafarers and others in the transportation industry do all they can to avoid getting the virus for their own health as well as the health of others. 

"Right now, it's the seafarers and the transport workers of the world that are keeping food on the table and medicine in the hospitals," he said.

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