Seafarers Diseases and Disorders – Must Know!

Life of a seafarer is not  easy . With all the money, branded clothing and imported goods comes a lot of responsibility and health risks. Seafarers are prone to a lot of diseases/disorders. Before joining the ship, sailors undergo a series of medical tests. This is done to ensure that the person joining the ship is in good mental and physical health and free from any kind of bodily defect which can interfere with the efficient performance required at the sea. Before joining the vessel, the person must produce a medical certificate certified by a DG Shipping approved medical practitioner. This is important because the life of seafarers is constantly at risk while at sea and even the slightest of the problems could cause an accident.

Some compulsory physical medical tests include:

  • Complete Blood Count (Hb, TWBC, ESR)
  • Routine Urine (Albumin sugar and microscopic)
  • Blood Sugar
  • Audiometry
  • Vision Test (Distant, near and color)
  • X-ray of Chest
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG)

These are some of the basic compulsory tests required, but these requirements change from vessel to vessel. For instance, in an oil tanker engaged in the carriage of carcinogenic cargos, seafarers must undergo a medical examination that includes blood and liver function tests. After the seafarer has passed all his medical tests and is on board, he/she is prone to certain diseases and health hazards. These health hazards arise due to the nature of work on board, change in climatic conditions, long working hours, type of cargo being carried, materials interacted with, epidemic and endemic diseases and most importantly personal habits.

Diseases/disorders that can commonly occur while working on board

Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS)

Seafarers onboard are exposed to a lot of power tools such as the chipping machine, needle guns and hand-held grinders. These tools produce immense vibrations in the hand of the user. Frequent use of these tools results in hand-arm vibration syndrome. The most common symptoms of this disorder are tingling fingers, numbness and blanching and even pain in arm and wrist. Lack of awareness improper safety guidelines on safe limits of usage or exposure to such power tools and machinery along with other factors like smoking, circulatory proper and improper diet makes seafarers vulnerable to this disease.

Musculoskeletal Disorder (MSD)

Operations on the vessel are carried out by modern fleet with high end technology and round the clock schedule in all types of weather, due to this many seafarers work straight in 12 hours shift or 6 on 6 off shifts which leaves them with very less time for any physical activity. A survey conducted by a Europe based health research facility on board Norwegian and Danish flag offshore showed that seafarers were reported to suffer from serious disorders related to muscular and skeletal structure of the body. MSD is one of the main causes for many seafarers taking longer breaks from the sea. This disorder is mainly caused due to the lack of physical activity and exercise, to tackle these modern ships have good gym facilities which are furnished with the best equipment.

Cardio-Vascular Disease (CVD)

These are one of the most common diseases found not only in the seafaring community but also in the general population. Various studies have showed that the number of seafarers who die due to cardiovascular diseases is due to the factors such as genes, age, smoking and other reasons depending in conditions on board like stress, diet and lack of exercise. With the reduction of crew members on board multitasking, lack of leisure and recreational activities, high stress levels are common among seafarers, which are some of the major causes of cardiovascular diseases. Although medication for acute chest pain and heart rhythm disorders are available on board but in case of severe heart strokes which require immediate medical attention evacuation to the shores becomes very difficult or sometimes impossible.

Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs)

Sex is one the basic needs for every human being just like food and water. Seafarers travel to different countries around the world which makes them vulnerable to STDs such as HIV/AIDS and venereal diseases like gonorrhea and syphilis. AIDS is a major concern as it directly affects one’s professional and personal life. Modern day seafarers do not fir in the stereotype of having women on ports, but long-term isolation from family and friends, lack of leisure and recreational activities, sexual urges and the availability of a strong sex industry in almost every port makes seafarers susceptible to unsafe sexual activities and make them a victim of fatal diseases. Most common and the best way to avoid these kinds of diseases is to create awareness among seafarers about STDs and the importance of safe sexual practice. This can help in minimizing and preventing the risk of transmission; however, it is self-control and discipline which can completely eradicate the disease.

Cancer

The most common cause of cancer is the exposure to toxic substances. We don’t need to discuss how dangerous this disease is as 1 out of 8 deaths globally is caused because of cancer. In the seafaring community the most common are lungs cancer, renal cancer, leukemia (blood cancer) and lymphoma (lymphatic cancer). Even after the substitution of occupational hazards like asbestos, benzene and benzidines new potential carcinogens such as beryllium, cadmium, lead etc. have been introduced into the work place. Personnel working on oil or chemical products carrying tankers are exposed to these chemicals and have a high risk of developing various types of cancers. Other factors such as smoking, exposure to UV rays aggravate conditions leading to cancer.

Pandemic and Epidemic Diseases

I don’t think I need to elaborate much on this topic as just one single word sums up all of it i.e., Coronavirus. Since last year we have witnessed the worst pandemic of all time. The pandemic has not only caused deaths but has also a very big impact on the lives of people. In case of seafarers, they are bound to visit different ports in different parts of the world and thus are exposed to various pandemic and epidemic diseases. Though seafarers are vaccinated and medically examined thoroughly, they are in danger of being exposed to any sudden outburst of new diseases in the area they visit. The best way to tackle these kinds of diseases is to make the master and the crew aware about the diseases before docking and restricting people entering the vessel.

Hypertension

It is considered as one of the major occupational hazards in merchant navy. Excessive fatigue and stress are some of the main causes of hypertension. However, smoking and over consumption of alcohol also leads to hypertension. It can lead to other illnesses like stroke and renal failure. With change in lifestyle and food habits, quitting smoking and alcohol, engaging oneself in physical activities like exercise, swimming and yoga can help in reducing hypertension at a great extent.

To conclude, all the major diseases or disorders are caused either due to excessive smoking/drinking or lack in physical activities. Work environment does play a major role and shipping companies are trying to enhance the working conditions. But what is most important is to bring a change in one’s lifestyle.

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