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The stark reality of maritime health hazards

Posted on 21st May 2017

In the week that marks the 30th anniversary of the Zeebrugge Herald of Free Enterprise disaster, the inherent dangers of working at sea and the impact of such an event are clearer than ever.

Mariners poor health costs the industry $760m in diversions and evacuations

As well as the risk of serious accidents, seafarers also face a number of smaller, everyday health hazards which contribute to make working at sea one of the world’s most dangerous professions.

Ships transport 23 million tonnes of cargo and 55,000 cruise passengers every day. Marine transport is continuously evolving to meet the needs of a growing world population, but maritime safety management is still a major challenge.

At any given time, 1.5 million seafarers are operating around 55,000 merchant vessels across the globe. Of these seafarers, around seven per cent each year will be evacuated from the vessel on which they are working due to ill health. The annual cost to the industry of diversions and helicopter evacuations is $760m.

The physical and mental challenges of working at sea

The physical and mental challenges of working at sea are manifold; from demanding work schedules to long hours and the pressures of being separated from family and friends for weeks at a time.

Sleep, or the lack of it, is also a major problem and often cited as a contributory factor in a number of accidents and near misses. According to research published in the Nautilus Telegraph, fatigue and stress is a significant problem for staff at all levels and particularly for officers. More than 60 per cent of workers reported feeling more stressed at the end of a voyage.

Many vessels are still receiving sub-standard medical support

Along with injuries at sea from equipment, wet conditions, lack of up-to-date training, understaffing and a number of other issues, it is clear to see why having access to proper medical care is vital.

That said, in the 21st Century many vessels are still receiving sub-standard medical support, relying on well-thumbed copies of manuals like the Ship Captain’s Medical Guide and radio assistance from Maritime Telemedical Assistance Services.

“Seafarers must have prompt access to medical care whilst on board ships” says the MLC

Maritime Labour Convention, 2006, Regulation 4.1, has the purpose of protecting the health of seafarers and ensuring their prompt access to medical care whilst on board ships and ashore. The Code states that “Each Member shall ensure that all seafarers on ships that fly its flag, have access to prompt and adequate medical care whilst working on board.”

The requirements for on-board medical care set out in the Code, include standards for measures aimed at “Providing seafarers with medical care as comparable as possible to that which is generally available to workers ashore.”

The Code goes on to state that “The competent authority shall ensure by a prearranged system that medical advice by radio, or satellite communication to ships at sea, including specialist advice, is available 24 hours a day.”

Looking to reduce health hazards at sea? Use the latest technology!

Taking this into account, it’s great news for the majority of merchant vessels that don’t have access to an on-board doctor, that innovative new technology is entering the market, offering a range of services to help improve maritime healthcare.

New technology aimed at improving crew welfare, is designed to simplify the obligations of employers and provide a safer working environment at sea. If we can’t help protect seafarers, the shipping industry will fail – it’s as simple as that! After all, a fleet is only as efficient as its crew, so it’s essential that they are kept in optimum health.

Make sure you tune in for next week’s article where we review the latest technology that’s revolutionising offshore healthcare and saving seafarers lives. Can’t wait until then? Take a look at some the latest crew welfare products the industry has to offer, or contact the Martek Marine team today