A man on ship looking at the sea

Staying safe at sea

Working with key maritime partners to improve crew welfare and safety

Last updated: 28 March 2024


Seafarers face challenging conditions every day – sometimes putting them at risk of injuries and even fatalities.

Data tell us that the overall safety record of the industry has not improved much in recent years, with 215 fatalities reported globally in 2022. Crew welfare is also a critical issue, with over 6,000 violations related to working and living conditions recorded in 2022 alone, according to the Tokyo MOU.

We are a leading charterer and significant stakeholder in the international shipping markets, owning 17 vessels and chartering another 230 ships to move more than 300 million tons of cargo a year. So protecting the welfare and safety of the 6,000 seafarers that support our shipping operations is a top priority.

We strive for a fatality and injury-free portfolio, and to lift the baseline of crew welfare. To do this, we’ve strengthened our vetting, assurance, and incident management processes and developed a series of initiatives to improve safety and crew welfare across our owned and chartered fleet.

We’re also collaborating with industry peers for common safety requirements, including standardising vessel inspections to make it easier for ship owners and operators to adopt a consistent approach from charterers.

But the level of fragmentation in the global dry-bulk sector remains a challenge. Our shipping activities are a small fraction of the 12,000 or so dry-bulk vessels and 2,300 ship owners, and the industry has vastly different levels of safety maturity.

That’s why we established the Rio Tinto Designated Owners and Operators (DOO) program last year, which aims to enhance everyday processes and standards while sharing best practice and incident learnings across our global chartered fleet.

We know we achieve more together. As a structured program that complements our existing vetting and assurance activities, the DOO program supports our like-minded shipping partners and the broader industry – including technical ship managers and regulatory authorities – to improve the safety and crew welfare on board ships.

After launching with 5 inaugural partners in February 2023, the program has now expanded to over 20 international shipping partners (collectively representing more than a quarter our annual global dry bulk shipping volume).

How the safety stewardship triangle is helping save lives

The DOO program incorporates existing industry standards – including the international Dry Bulk Management Standard – into what we call a “safety stewardship triangle”, by preventing fatalities, improving physical health and safety, and uplifting crew welfare and mental health and wellbeing.

By using standards that are broadly recognised by industry, we hope to encourage many other shipping companies and industry peers to adopt similar objectives.

Scott Bergeron, Managing Director at Oldendorff Carriers, said the program gave their company a methodical way to target practical safety improvements.

“We are well aligned with the ambitions, but the key is always in the execution. The program helped us to bring together policy, procedure, and practices with the Dry Bulk Management Standard in a way that created both a sense of urgency but also structure and organisation,” Mr Bergeron said.

Weston Fitzgerald, Head of Health, Safety, Environment and Quality, at Golden Ocean Shipping, agreed.

“The three pillars have helped us to advance our internal programs,” he said.

“In recent years, it’s become clear that gaps exist in standards and more consistency is needed.

“Rio Tinto's DOO program provides a perfect platform to help us prioritise actions to improve safety, inclusion, wellbeing and asset protection under the umbrella of enhanced standards.”

Driving positive change through a transparent, data-driven sharing ecosystem

The DOO program is supported by safety and crew welfare initiatives including incident sharing, master coach visits and management systems. Participants said the program has helped to drive a range of improvements in their businesses.

For Vincent Phua, Senior Vice President at U-Ming Marine Transport, the value has been in sharing best practices and learnings.

“We’re happy to be part of the group,” he said.

“From top management to ship crew, we have benefited from Rio Tinto’s structured program covering topics including ships, safety, crew injuries and accidents.

“We’ve also seen great value in learning from our partners and gaining insight into how they manage their fleet, which has only enhanced our own safety management skills.”

Mr Fitzgerald also noted a correlation between safety outcomes and crew wellbeing.

“Safety and crew welfare are synonymous. Without a happy ship, a true safety culture would not be present. Our crews need to know that we care about them,” he said.

“Rio Tinto’s program is helping us refine our organisational culture so that all of our crews on all of our ships are treated equally, fairly and with empathy.”

Management and digital systems are another area where the DOO program has been helping industry operators to target more consistent outcomes and higher quality support.

“We have explored a series of innovative digital solutions as part of the program,” said Mr Tonon, Technical Director of Berge Bulk.

“One of those is our Fleet Safety flashcards, where we have engaged all our seafarers with a series of quizzes on their own applications to help them reflect and learn from possible injuries and risky jobs that are happening on board of the vessel.

“The program also prompted us to reflect and increase the data that we provide to our seafarers. In this respect, there has been a double benefit.

“We can engage longer with them from the office and share learnings and improvements. And, at the same time, we can give them the opportunity to spend more time communicating with family and friends, which helps them maintain connections to their life back home.”

Partnering towards a safe, sustainable future

Safety and crew welfare is about making our people the focus of shipping. This includes improving conditions for our people's mental health, and making every employee feel safe and included. The sustainability of our industry depends on it, so we can attract diverse talent while remaining at the forefront of emerging technologies.

The DOO program represents not only Rio Tinto’s commitment in crew safety and welfare, but also our focus in partnering with industry players in the value chain – how we can work together as one for the safety and well-being of every seafarer involved in our global trade. 

“The program aligns closely to our own safety engagement vision and it’s something that our industry really needs,” said Mr Tonon.

Toru Hikima, General Manager, Iron Ore and Coal, Carrier Division, at Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, also said improving safety outcomes is closely aligned to their priorities.

“The program has aligned to many of our own safety initiatives,” Mr Hikima said.

“For example, we know that crew welfare is one of the most critical factors for marine safety. If the crew feel safer, they are safer. We were pleased to discover the program supported our focus in this area.”

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