New data on medical issues experienced by crew and essential health guidance issued on Day of the Seafarer

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The focus of  today’s Day of the Seafarer is on safety tips at sea, a critical factor in seafarer wellbeing. MedSea, the maritime arm of International SOS, offers practical measures for organisations to prevent common injuries, illnesses and safety concerns onboard commercial vessels, complemented by data which highlights the diverse health challenges among seafarers.

MedSea’s assistance case data from 2023 shows that seafarers suffer from a wide variety of health issues onboard, each of which provides important learnings for management.

Musculoskeletal problems, often caused by improper lifting techniques, posture and repetitive tasks, have always been a concern for seafarers. In 2023, it emerged as the fourth most common medical case type, with a significant portion (40%) involving the neck and back. Additionally, one-third of all cases where seafarers are deemed unfit for duty were attributed to musculoskeletal problems.

In 2023, dental cases saw a concerning rise, jumping from MedSea’s sixth most common medical case category to the second. 67% of these cases required further shoreside evaluation, which is higher than average compared to other medical case types. When crew members cannot be immediately attended to by a dentist onshore, the pain and discomfort they experience may affect their job performance, concentration, sleep, and safety.

It is also important to consider the impact of chronic health conditions that many seafarers suffer from, primarily due to non-communicable diseases (NCDs). Hypertension is reported to be the most common chronic condition onboard ships, followed by diabetes, depression and obesity. When incorrectly managed, NCDs pose significant health risks to seafarers, potentially leading to complications and even medical emergencies, requiring vessel diversions and delays. The World Health Organization (WHO) stated that the increasing trend of NCDs will continue worldwide. By around 2050, chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and respiratory illnesses will account for 86% of the 90 million fatalities each year[1].

Whilst cardiovascular diseases represent a much smaller number of overall MedSea cases, globally they account for most NCD deaths, or 17.9 million people annually1. This poses a significant threat as potential consequences, such as a heart attack and a stroke can be potentially life-threatening. Protecting heart health, for example through eliminating tobacco use, should be a key priority for all onboard.

Dr Katherine Sinclaire, Senior Medical Advisor at MedSea says: “As we celebrate the Day of the Seafarer and recognise their critical role, it is important to acknowledge the unique health challenges they face. Long stretches at sea, isolation and exposure to harsh environments can significantly impact crewmembers’ wellbeing and exacerbate chronic conditions like hypertension, diabetes and mental health conditions. As an industry, we must continue to focus upon prevention and improving the overall health and welfare of our seafarers.

“Organisations within the Maritime industry have a Duty of Care that goes beyond basic medical facilities onboard and moves towards proactive health management programmes, designed to address the specific challenges seafarers encounter. As we enter the northern hemisphere summer with temperatures expected to rise due to climate change, seafarers are likely to be exposed to unseasonably high temperatures. Running awareness campaigns about safe working practices in hot environments can significantly reduce the risk of heat-related illness among seafarers”.

MedSea shares top tips for organisations to prevent common injuries and illnesses among seafarers onboard commercial vessels:

Chronic condition support: develop programmes to help seafarers effectively manage pre-existing chronic conditions while at sea. This could include encouraging seafarers to maintain a healthy lifestyle, eating a well-balanced diet and exercising regularly. It is also important to provide access to medical care and regularly monitor health data.
Raise awareness of the importance of dental health: encourage crewmembers to be proactive with their dental care through educational materials on oral hygiene and the provision of dental hygiene kits.

Prevention of musculoskeletal problems: conduct job risk assessments and implement safety protocols to minimise musculoskeletal problems arising from incorrectly using tools, repetitive tasks or improper lifting techniques. Ensure seafarers follow safe work practices.
Heat exhaustion/illness prevention: Encourage regular hydration and breaks, limit time spent outside during peak hours of heat and ensure use of protective clothing or equipment.
Provide smoking cessation support: offer smoking cessation programmes and resources to raise awareness of the negative impacts of smoking on cardiovascular health and overall wellbeing.

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