It is no longer demands for work gloves or a shortage of safety goggles that Martin Hulterström, chief safety officer on M/S Nordlink, has to contend with. Instead it is cases of dissatisfaction and poor cooperation that have become more common.
Martin Hulterström realized at a very early stage that a good work environment is important for seafarers. While he was at high school he learned about the problems and risks at sea and was warned to be careful.
”I had a maths teacher who had worked for a long time on product tankers and crude tankers. His body had been affected by all the gases he had inhaled and the engine room atmosphere did not help matters. One of his daughters was born with a brain injury, which he was convinced was due to his occupational background. He told us again and again that we had to be very careful, especially when we were working with chemicals, gases and lubrication oil,” says Martin.
When Martin went to sea at the middle of the 1980s there was a lot that needed to be improved. Protective equipment was sometimes a scarce resource. If it was available it was not used often and safety culture was poor. In the tanker sector we filled with open ullage hatches or tank covers because it was faster. Work clothes did not protect against the cold or chemical splashes.
”One of the first changes I managed to push through in the OT lines as a safety officer was the issuing of acid-proof winter overalls. I worked on a Swedish flagged chemicals tanker and we sailed in the North Sea and in the Gulf of Bothnia. If you got caustic soda or sulphuric acid on you, it went straight through your clothes.”
Stress and conflicts
The job as safety officer demanded both staying power and moral courage. Work environment issues were low priority with many people, both at the shipping office and on board.
”In the beginning you were quite often laughed out and ridiculed for doing that work. But there was an older able body seaman who was well-informed in many areas and he supported and encouraged me. It gave me the extra backing that I needed to stand up for my beliefs,” says Martin.
He joined Nordö-Link in 1998. This meant he left tanker tonnage and started in Ropax (rolling cargo and passengers) instead. According to Martin, safety work is no longer focused on the lack of protective equipment or exposure to harmful substances, even though these aspects are still around. The equipment required is available or can be ordered, and the loading deck on the seven year old ferry that sails between Malmö and Travemünde is well-ventilated. Psycho-social problems, on the other hand, have increased. Martin says that he has to step in more often to mediate in conflicts and have individual talks.
”It could be about anything from ”I can’t work with this or that person” to ”The manager has gone and messed up the schedule again”. These problems have increased in the last six to seven years and they can be quite difficult to sort out.
And when job satisfaction sinks, the risk of sick leave increases,” says Martin.
”If the psycho-social environment is not good, I think the risk is greater that people feel physical symptoms. Also, the risk of accidents increases if you are not really there mentally,” he says, and continues.
”I have tried conflict management talks and listened to both sides. Sometimes it is possible to solve the issue, but it may also end up needing to go further up and someone, unfortunately, may have to be moved. I think that a lot of this sort of thing is related to stress among all the parties involved.”
Martin works two weeks and is then free for two weeks. It fits in well with his family and children, he feels. He has tried working ashore on several occasions, but says it is not for him.
”This way of living and working is addictive. I feel better as a person when I work intensively for a period and can take more time off.”