An unexpected consequence of COVID-19 precautions.
What the reporter told us:
As a pilot undertaking a routine pilotage in these extraordinary times, I wear a facemask which has resulted in an unusual side effect. On this occasion, it was noted that the master’s knowledge and understanding of the English language was excellent. However, his ability to understand me whilst my voice was somewhat stifled by the protective mask proved to be questionable. The master frequently said “yes” when it seemed to be inappropriate and I needed to confirm several important communications to be certain that I was getting a correct response.
The learning from this is to ensure that all communications are properly understood by using closed loop reporting, and by ensuring that any queries are made in an open manner as opposed to being leading or suggestive.
This is a simple report illustrating that a mask can stifle the full audible range of communication and can also obscure the more subtle aspects of communication such as body language and visual signs e.g. smiling or scowling. Whilst this report is specific to COVID-19, on a broader front it can be related to multinational ships where conversations and verbal communications are easier and more free flowing in a face-to-face situation, rather than remotely via telephone or radio. There may also be an element of lip reading between people, particularly in areas of high ambient noise and with older people in general.
The merits of wearing a mask or other face covering for personal protection or to prevent any potential spread of infection have been debated widely. Advice changes rapidly and varies in different parts of the world, but as a general principle masks are now highly recommended, and mariners should follow the latest WHO and national recommendations on the wearing of masks and face coverings. If there is a variance then the strictest precautions should be followed. A ship-specific COVID-19 threat and risk assessment also needs to be taken into consideration by those boarding the vessel for whatever reason. In a similar manner, a vessel may be required by a port to follow specific procedures.
It was noted that some pilots take their masks off during critical manoeuvring but increase social distancing to compensate. There is a need to balance the risk between critical communication and possible contagion.
Finally, if an operation cannot be carried out safely, including satisfactory safety-critical communications, then the operation should not be undertaken.