Seafarers face many occupational health risks

Seafarers are often exposed to many occupational risk factors and face tough and harsh working conditions. The demanding working environment, which includes exposure to noises, chemicals, vibrations as well as isolation can lead to various physical diseases and mental illness. Research has shown that seafarers have 1.3 times higher mortality rate than other employees. The mortality rate was especially high in smoking and alcohol-related causes. 

Dr Katherine Sinclaire, Senior Medical Advisor at MedSea, an International SOS company, comments: “Promoting the health and wellbeing of seafarers is of paramount importance, not only for their individual welfare but also for the safety and efficiency of maritime operations. We encourage seafarers to call us regardless of their situation. This is not only to help mitigate the risks of a worsening medical situation but to also collect data and help us to better understand how to address the types of health conditions and medical needs onboard.”

Dr Sinclaire added “A key part of our role as medical professionals is to use this data to promote health at sea. We always want to minimise any unnecessary discomfort to seafarers, especially when shoreside medical assistance is days away, so we aim to prevent and educate wherever we can.”  

Four key trends that appear in the MedSea case data are:

Dental health cases increasing

From January to August 2023, 13% of International SOS Maritime cases were related to dental issues, making it the second highest case category next to COVID-19. While this category has always seen high case volumes, it represents an increase year on year.

It is widely reported that poor dental hygiene may be linked to other chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease. In general, dental issues are preventable and can be avoided, therefore it is crucial for ship owners/operators to promote dental health onboard.

Seafarers need to be protected from the risks of COVID-19, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)

Global COVID-19 cases remain significant and this is reflected in MedSea data, with COVID-19 remaining the highest case category by volume. As winter approaches, this trend is expected to continue alongside viruses such as Influenza and RSV.

Ship owners should consider COVID-19 boosters and flu vaccinations where possible for their seafarers at risk, to minimize the potential for illness at sea and operational impact.

Addressing gastrointestinal challenges and norovirus outbreaks on board

Another common ailment encountered by MedSea is gastrointestinal issues. Prolonged periods at sea, irregular working hours, limited access to fresh and nutritious food can lead to digestive problems such as gastritis, constipation and food poisoning. Furthermore, noroviruses are often associated with the maritime industry. The highly contagious virus can spread rapidly in close quarters such as cruise ships and can result in severe gastrointestinal illnesses among crew members.

To prevent gastrointestinal diseases on board, ship owners should implement stringent sanitation measures, ensuring access to clean drinking water and promoting hygiene practices on board. It is crucial for seafarers to understand food safety practices, including proper food handling, preparation, and storage.

A culture of healthy lifestyle should be promoted among seafarers

Encouraging healthy eating habits, regular exercise, smoking cessation and preventing alcohol abuse among seafarers can have far-reaching benefits. A balanced diet ensures seafarers receive essential nutrients needed for optimal physical and mental performance during lengthy trips at sea.

Smoking cessation reduces the risk of tobacco-related diseases and improves respiratory health, which is vital for those working in confined spaces. Additionally, addressing alcohol abuse not only enhances seafarers’ health, but also mitigates the risk of accidents, ensuring a healthier and safer maritime environment. 

Photo credit: iStock/ Godji10

Make seafaring great again

Make seafaring great again

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