Every once in a while, shipping latches on to a statistic, phrase or a quote from somewhere or the other and repeats it endlessly. The phrase it chooses to repeat, usually to the point of tedium, often glorifies seamen or seeks to elicit wide-eyed awe at what they do for a living.
A big reason shipping does this is because it thinks that its seamen will buy the platitudes and ignore the reality of how the industry treats them. A second reason is that by glorifying seamen, shipping wants the rest of the world to look at the industry favourably, and therefore give it a commercial break or three.
Along with the evergreen and trite ’shipping carries 90 percent of everything’ and the ‘seafarers are our best assets’ kind of stuff regularly dished out, I have noticed another worn quote gaining momentum in industry circles in recent weeks, which says that seafaring is the second most dangerous occupation in the world.
Let me get one thing out of the way first: I disagree with that statement, because I can think of many occupations that are riskier. Shipping is dangerous enough; let us leave it at that. It is more important to me that, like with the other banalities trotted out, that quote is dishonest.
To the best of my knowledge, the statement can be traced back to a 2002 or so Oxford study that looked at statistics of mortalities in UK based professions over twenty years. It said, based on these numbers, that deep sea fishing was the most hazardous profession with commercial seafaring coming in as the second most dangerous. Seafarers were 26·2 times more likely to die at work compared with other British workers, and deep-sea fishermen were 52·4 times more likely to do so.
Around the rest of the world, a lazy- and, as far as seafarer issues are concerned, regressive- industry that does not even bother to keep statistics of the people who die (or are missing injured, held by pirates or kill themselves) simply took the British quote and rebroadcast it out of context. It is doing so again.
That this quote has resurfaced has partly to do with Rose George, her recent book and articles. The book “Deep Sea and Foreign Going: Inside shipping, the invisible industry That Brings You 90% of everything” was written after a short five-week journey on board a container ship. Her recent articles have pointed out, amongst other things, that 2000 seamen die every year at sea. The industry has been quick to pick these up and regurgitate them to anybody who will listen in a bid, not to increase awareness of seamen’s issues or improve safety, but to glean some sympathy for itself.
Other stats are also used for this purpose, such as one that says that seafarers have a one in 11 chance of being injured during their tour of duty – much higher than in other occupations. Also rebroadcast is a Seacare Australia finding from 2012; the national safety regulator said seafarers were working in the most dangerous industry, where injury risks remained “significantly greater than in other high risk industries”.
It is too much to expect the vast majority of shipmanagers to look beyond the statistics and quotes that they select for their self-serving ends. I will only point out, though, that these numbers and phrases have come from studies in countries and from ships belonging to owners that have a much better track record on human rights issues and safety than the vast majority out there, and that the conditions that most seamen endure are usually worse.
I leave you with just one statistic that shipping will definitely not promulgate, and that is that this is a high-risk occupation for suicide. Dr Stephen Roberts, a specialist in maritime and public health from Swansea University, said so in a 2013 study. He found that, during 1979/80 and 1982/83, merchant seafarers had the second-highest suicide rate after (surprisingly) veterinarians; and in 2001–05 the second-highest rate after coal miners. Seafarers, he said, had a higher than 620 per 100,000 people suicide rate, which brought the profession into the “highest-risk occupation for suicide” category.