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A ship in a harbour is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.

John A. Shedd, American author
Was there enough room on the door for Jack? The question with which we ended the interview with Jane Van Huylenbrouck, lawyer at the Maritime Inspectorate (FPS Mobility and Transport) and former employee at the National Social Security Office (NSSO), and Joeri De Thaye, adviser at the Maritime Inspectorate and former maritime inspector. They replied with a wholehearted 'yes, of course'. But it should not have come to this. 'With the appropriate rescue equipment, both would have survived.'

Since time immemorial, working in the maritime industry has been synonymous with an adventure that calls for courage and endurance. Seafarers easily spend seven months full-time at sea. It is therefore important to ensure their health and safety on board these ships. Thanks to advanced technologies and international regulations, life on Belgian ships is becoming increasingly safe. We asked Jane and Joeri what measures ensure this safety on the seven seas, in addition to the social security system for seafarers(New window).

Safety risks

Seafarers are more easily exposed to accidents at the workplace because they both live and work in the same location. So social protection is necessary. Joeri, a former marine inspector, understands the challenges faced by seafarers. 'It’s a 24/7 job with a high workload, often extreme weather conditions, and sometimes even piracy. They also have to carry out physically demanding work such as welding, working at height and handling hazardous materials.' Jane stresses that fortunately there is a strong safety culture on board ships, supported by both shipping companies and regulations. 'All crew members on board have received at least basic medical training and some, including the captain, have received advanced medical training.'

International law

Besides extensive training, regulations also play a role in ensuring health and safety at sea. Jane contributed to the implementation of the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) into Belgian law. This convention primarily sets out the minimum requirements for how seafarers should be treated. Rules were drawn up in relation to wages, working and rest times, social security, etc. 'Because of my knowledge of social law in my previous job as a lawyer at the NSSO, I acted as a bridge between DG Scheepvaart (my employer) on the one hand and FPS WASO and the NSSO on the other. This allowed us to work together constructively and implement the MLC in our legislation. And this is something I'm proud.' Jane underlines the power of cooperation between different parties to ensure health and safety in shipping. 'It’s important to get all stakeholders on the same page and ensure that regulations are not only understood, but are also complied with. A healthy work environment is a win-win situation that benefits everyone.'

Maritime inspectors

So regulation and cooperation are indispensable, but when combined with control mechanisms, they really reinforce each other. This is where maritime inspectors have an important role to play. They maintain health and safety on board ships. As an expert by experience, Joeri emphasises that the role of a marine inspector is multi-faceted. In addition to technical checks, crew members are also interviewed. 'There’s room for seafarers' personal experiences, which helps us to obtain a full picture of daily working conditions and highlights possible areas for improvement.' Inspectors assess living and working conditions on board and ensure that the crew are paid correctly and that their social security is guaranteed. They also check that ships comply with national and international legislation on construction, equipment and environmental requirements. They carry out inspections on Belgian ships worldwide and check foreign ships entering Belgian ports. This is how they ensure compliance with the various conventions and codes.

A stroke of luck

'The evolution of rescue equipment and the deployment of computer technology are helping us to develop more stringent safety procedures and take preventive actions.' Jane points to ongoing improvements in regulations and the adoption of new technologies. 'Tragic as it may sound, incidents often lead to stricter requirements and regulatory changes. In addition, shipping companies are obliged to constantly evaluate and improve their procedures to ensure the safety of their crews.'

Mental health

The welfare of seafarers is also a major concern, especially during long voyages. Modern merchant ships often offer recreational facilities such as TV, karaoke and internet to help the crew relax, but not all ships have these facilities. Some vessels still do not have an internet connection for their seafarers. 'Although there’s no requirement for specific recreational facilities, many shipping companies offer them anyway to promote crew welfare and motivation.'

Stay involved

But what role do seafarers themselves play? 'It’s important to take sufficient rest. In addition, frequent training and emergency drills arm seafarers against the constantly changing conditions at sea.'

As such, the Belgian maritime sector is making significant progress. And just as ships are built to sail, Social Security for Seafarers(New window) ensures that these individuals can do their jobs with the necessary protection.

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