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Published on 25/02/2019

The Most Common Cause of Death at Sea

Working at sea has always been demanding – the hours are long and irregular and the job usually requires military-precision routine. The environment also has the additional risks of handling machinery, chemicals, fuels and gases without easy access to emergency services if things go wrong.

Despite advanced technology and a greater focus on safety, there are still many dangers to seafarers. The economic struggles faced by the maritime industry have also resulted in the reduction of crew numbers, an increase in work hours and quicker turnarounds in ports that leaves less time to rest and recover.


The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) was first proposed in response to the sinking of The Titanic but eventually took effect across signatory flag states in 1948. The current version came into force in 1974 and is continually amended and updated to take into account new developments in merchant shipping and more sophisticated safety procedures.

It covers everything from the stability of installations and how cargo is carried to communications, ship management and what life-saving equipment should be kept on board. However, despite the comprehensive guidelines set out by SOLAS, fatalities on ships are still occurring from a variety of different sources.


Liberian Flag has collated and published information regarding the leading causes of death among its seafarers for the last five years. The data goes up to 1st November 2018 and even then, without the last two months of the year, it can be seen that 2018 wasn’t the best year for safety. In fact, it was the worst since 2014 with 43 deaths lives lost at sea.

Being caught or hit by objects caused 7 deaths and suicide was responsible for 5 but the most significant number – double the nearest figure – was for ‘heart attack, collapse, unconscious’. These issues caused the deaths of 14 seafarers in 2018 and the numbers were just as high for the previous years: 18 in 2017, 14 in 2016, 19 in 2015, 25 in 2014 and 12 in 2013. ‘Heart attack, collapse, unconscious’ has been the leading cause of death among Liberian Flag seafarers for the last 5 years.


Sudden Cardiac Arrest can strike anyone at any time, even the fittest and most healthy but the most common cause is a heart attack – a blockage in the arteries which prevents oxygenated blood from reaching the heart. Obesity, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, high blood pressure and a cholesterol heavy diet can all be contributing factors.

Clinical and statistical studies have also identified several other factors that increase the risk of a heart attack. Men, for example, are at greater risk and fall victim earlier in life – generally over the age of 45. As you get older, your blood vessels become less flexible making it harder for blood to flow through them, so age is a significant factor.

Over 25% of officers on ships from OECD countries are over 50 years old and 50% are over 40. There are many additional contributing factors on board a working vessel too – hypothermia, electrocution, trauma caused by impacts or falls, respiratory and circulation problems, metabolic changes and the effects of drugs all significantly increase the chances of suffering a sudden cardiac arrest.


Rapid defibrillation with an AED is the only proven way to treat Sudden Cardiac Arrest. If a victim is shocked within sixty seconds, their chances of survival can be as high as 90%. Within five minutes, there’s still a 70% chance but after this, it drops by 10% every minute.

For this reason, AEDs are becoming commonplace in schools, sports venues, tourist locations and workplaces – and they’re saving lives. However, if your workplace is at sea, hours away from a hospital or medevac, and a crew member suffers a sudden cardiac arrest, their chances of survival are practically zero if there isn’t AED in the medical chest.

Germany was the first flag state to introduce legislation that legally requires seagoing merchant vessels to carry AEDs but this was way back in 2012 and the rest of the world has been very slow to follow suit. While AEDs are becoming standard equipment on cruise ships and ferries, merchant vessels – with all their increased risks – are still being neglected.


Lifeforce is designed specifically for the tough conditions faced on board ship. It’s rated IPX4 for water protection, IP5X for dust protection and has been jet and helicopter tested, coming up to US Military standards for shock and vibration. The handle and sides are rubberised to prevent impact damage and there are no lids, cases or moving parts to get in the way during an emergency. It’s lightweight, portable and easy to store.

During an emergency situation, non-medically trained personnel may often be in a state of panic so it’s also essential that your AED is easy to use for all crew members – it could make all the difference to a victim’s survival. Independent studies have shown that Lifeforce is the simplest and most successful marine AEDs to use in the world, stating that: ‘Users are on average 26% more likely to deliver effective defibrillation using LIFEFORCE® than with other AEDs’.

Stay safe at sea.

Make sure your crew are protected from the world’s biggest killer with a defibrillator that you can depend on. Contact us to find out more.