Crew changes amidst the COVID-19-crisis
In response to the Covid-19-outbreak, countries have implemented various restrictions concerning travel and quarantine. The restrictions make crew changes challenging both in terms of seafarers being denied entry and in terms of coordinating the crew change. Which operational challenges do the shipping companies face in handling their crew in this situation?
Guidelines regarding crew changes in Norway during the Covid-19-crisis
Subject to the seafarer having the necessary identity papers as required by the immigration regulation, seafarers on their way to or from active service are permitted to enter Norway pursuant to national regulations.
To ensure that crew changes in Norwegian ports take place in accordance with national regulations, the Norwegian Maritime Authority (the “NMA”) has prepared a set of guidelines regarding crew changes and quarantine rules for crew and other personnel arriving in Norway from abroad who are travelling to and from the ship.
Crew members arriving in Norway to commence service must be quarantined for 14 days. However, there are certain exceptions to this general rule:
- Crew members who have their place of residence in Norway, Sweden or Finland are exempted from quarantine measures when travelling to and from their residence and the vessel (place of work) and during workhours. The crew member is not exempted from quarantine duty during leisure time.
- Crew members who are essential for maintaining the proper operation of critical public functions related to matters of life and health are exempted from the duty of quarantine during travel to work and during workhours. The NMA considers that crew members who are necessary for safe operations of the vessel in accordance with the minimum safe manning requirements are essential and therefore exempted from the requirement of quarantine upon arrival in Norway. The crew member is not exempted from quarantine duty during leisure time.
- Crew members (and other persons on board the vessel) who are signing off in Norway are not required to undergo quarantine if i) the crew member has not been in contact with persons outside the vessel, ii) the crew member has stayed on board the vessel for at least 14 days, and iii) the crew member does not have any symptoms.
Can and should potential or confirmed infected crew members be denied commencing service on board?
Crew members who have contracted the coronavirus before they commence service on board shall be isolated. The isolation shall not take place on board a vessel.
Crew members who have not been diagnosed with the coronavirus but have been in close contact (contact in closer proximity than two meters for more than 15 minutes, or direct physical contact) with someone confirmed to have contracted the virus, shall undergo quarantine for 14 days.
The quarantine period should preferably be completed before the crew member commence service on board. However, quarantining on board is allowed if close contact with other persons on board can be avoided. The company must conduct a risk assessment and consider if quarantining on board is possible or not.
Nevertheless, the Ship Safety and Security Act (Skipssikkerhetsloven) states that anyone who works on board the vessel must be physically and mentally fit for service and not constitute a risk to other crew members on board. If a crew member is showing respiratory symptoms, the master can refuse the crew member to commence service. Alternatively, the crew member may be required to undergo a medical examination before commencing service.
Note that the shipping company, in most cases, is obligated to pay salaries/lots to crew members who are denied commencing service.
Potential local restrictions from municipalities
Several municipalities have introduced local restrictions which could make the operation of vessels calling at ports along the coast challenging. Such local restrictions may for instance impose stricter quarantine regulations or reporting procedures. For example, some ports authorities require that on-and-off signers are reported in advance together with information concerning quarantine and symptoms. Note that the Norwegian government has, in guidelines I-4/2020, advised municipalities not to implement restrictions which further limit the transit of goods and persons. If shipping companies experience difficulties with local regulations it is recommended that the relevant municipality is contacted.
Safety duties of the shipping companies
Effective preventative measures for the purpose of avoiding that the virus spreads on board the vessel will be paramount in order to ensure that crew members can sign off and on in a safe manner.
The Norwegian regulation on working environment, health and safety for persons working on board ships requires the shipping company to conduct risk assessments, including addressing the risk of infection, when work is planned and organized. The NMA highlights that the company has a responsibility to perform continuous risk assessments and to have an emergency contingency plan in place in case of infections on board.
In addition, the Norwegian Ship Labour Act (Skipsarbeidsloven) section 8-1 imposes a ‘duty of care’ on the shipping company for its crew members. In case of sickness on board, the company shall provide proper nursing care on board or ashore, including medical attention, medicaments and maintenance. This ‘duty of care’ applies regardless of whether the crew member is confirmed to have contracted the coronavirus.
How to be better prepared?
- Make sure to establish adequate routines and guidelines, for instance regarding transportation of workers to/from the port and instructions to the crew on how to act in order to minimize the risk of contracting the coronavirus. This should also include a plan for quarantine locations, in the event this becomes necessary.
- Liaise with local municipal authorities/the port in question for updates on potential local restrictions and regulations.
- Consider discussing and, if possible, to agree on extending the crew contracts/shifts with the relevant crew member and/or trade union. However, the company must be aware that longer working periods may impact not only the safety and health of the seafarers but also the safety of ships in terms of operation and navigation.
- If the company considers that any of the exemptions from the quarantine regulations apply for a certain crew member, make sure to prepare a declaration that an assessment has been done and provide the crew member with documentation for his/her performance of services for the company.