Seafaring is considered among the riskiest jobs, due to a combination of the hazardous nature of work, as well as the lifestyle onboard. Along with the risk of occupational accidents, seafarers have to deal with a demanding environment of increased stress and workload, triggering an adverse impact on their physical wellbeing.
Although crews typically pass their medical examination tests before joining a ship, the way of life onboard may cause health problems in the long-term, while the absence of medical guidance onboard can deteriorate the situation.
So, seafarers, as every other individual, should not neglect to take care of themselves and be alert on the most common diseases which find a fruitful ground due to life onboard:
- Pandemic and epidemic diseases
Due to the nature of their job, crews are travelling to every corner of the world, increasing the risk of being infected and carry diseases, which do not exist in their country of origin. The COVID-19 case is and will be for a long time a stark reminder of the adverse effects of a pandemic, but the Ebola virus in West Africa constitutes another common example.
As such, the master and the crew should always be informed about such dangers before docking in a port, and follow procedures and prevention measures accordingly. In areas affected with an epidemic, restriction of people embarking and disembarking the ship can be helpful to minimize spreading of a disease.
2.Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSD)
These are one of the most common work-related issues, affecting the back, neck, shoulders and upper limbs as well as the lower limbs. Handling loads or repetitive and forceful movements, or even psychological factors such as the pressure of working long hours or sustaining bullying, raise the risk of MSDs.
To minimize such risk, it is important to ensure that all workers receive appropriate information, education and training on health and safety in the workplace, and know how to avoid specific hazards and risks. Gym facilities onboard are helpful, but lack of time or energy is a great challenge faced.
More specific measures, provided by OSHA, may include:
- Equipment: Make sure it is ergonomically designed and suitable for tasks;
- Management: Plan work to avoid repetitive or prolonged work in poor postures. Plan rest breaks, rotate jobs or reallocate work;
- Organisational factors: Develop an MSD policy to improve work organisation and psychosocial environment in the workplace and promote musculoskeletal health.
3.Obesity and/or diabetes
Obesity is a serious medical condition that can cause complications such as high blood pressure, heart disease or diabetes. The lifestyle changes onboard, combined with emotional factors, genetics or some hormone problems may cause an abnormal increase in the amount of fat cells in the body leading to obesity and making seafarers permanently unfit for duty. Meanwhile, obese seafarers are more prone to injuries from falls while at sea.
Eating healthy, exercising and always staying hydrated are three simple but critical tips to prevent such condition. The Body Mass Index (MBI) helps seafarers gain a better understanding of their weight:
- A BMI below 17,5indicates a person is “underweight”
- A BMI between 17,5 and 24,9indicates a person is of ‘’normal weight’’
- A BMI more than 25indicates ‘’overweight ‘’
- A BMI above 30means a person is ‘’obese or pathologically overweight’’
- Cardio-Vascular Disease (CVD) and/or hypertension
CVDs are the number one cause of death globally, with more people dying annually from CVDs than from any other cause. An estimated 17.9 million people died from CVDs in 2016, representing 31% of all global deaths. The most important behavioural risk factors of heart disease are unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, tobacco use and use of alcohol. As such, seafarers could not stay unaffected.
According to WHO, most cardiovascular diseases can be prevented by addressing behavioural risk factors such as tobacco use, unhealthy diet and obesity, physical inactivity and harmful use of tobacco.
Hypertension is a significant aspect of heart disease which also depends on lifestyle, in several cases. There are many factors which are important to become part of seafarers’ lifestyle to help prevent and manage hypertension, including:
- Control weight
- Healthy food
- Reduce or quit smoking and tobacco use
- Control stress
It is understood that individual responsibility is vital in such cases, but, on their part, shipping companies should make sure that proper information is circulated through crews to provide awareness on risk and prevention measures.
5.Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)
HIV, chlamydia, genital warts, genital herpes, gonorrhoea, hepatitis B constitute the most common STIs today. Given that a million people get an STI worldwide every day and, given that, crews – at least in the pre-corona time – may disembark at several ports around the world during their journey, sexual diseases constitute a red area for seafarers. ISWAN has specifically identified four factors increasing the risk for crews:
- Working and living away from partners;
- Single sex working and living arrangements dominated by men;
- Lack of information about risk and prevention;
- Enhanced probability of sex with casual partners due to travelling.
How can shipping companies help reduce the risk of STIs?
- Encourage and stimulate the crew to practice safe sex. Pay attention to prevention of STIs in meetings, at medical check-ups etc. Use a broad approach to inform and motivate the seafarers onboard.
- Condoms have to be available free of charge onboard, especially when arriving in port, for seafarers who go on land.
- Make a systematic plan of what you want to achieve in respect of prevention of STIs onboard and over what period.