Seafarer health and wellbeing is paramount to maritime safety

Jacqueline Smith, maritime coordinator, ITF. Credit: International Transport Workers' Federation

Seafarers’ health is paramount to ensuring maritime safety, not just the physical but mental wellbeing should also be prioritised.

Seafarers need to be physically fit to perform their duties. Good physical health is imperative, but equally important is their psychological, social, and emotional health and wellbeing. Our capabilities to manage stress, emotions, and interactions with others and make decisions are influenced by our state of mind. For seafarers being able to work and live together for months at sea in a limited space, they will require good physical health and good mental health.

Every person is born with a fight or flight instinct that influences how we react in a stressful situation. There are identified ways to reduce stress levels through physical activity, relaxation, mindfulness exercises, and social contact. All are important factors to ensure that a person can manage stress and make calculated and correct decisions in a high-pressure situation. For seafarers, this ability is crucial not only for the individual, but also for the overall safety of their fellow crew members and ship operations.

We often underestimate the importance of psychological, social, and emotional health and wellbeing. Until recently it was considered a taboo subject, especially in male-dominated environments, to speak openly about psychological and emotional health as this was seen as a weakness. Thankfully this is changing and today there is less stigma associated with the topic. Still, there is a long way to go before we fully accept and are open about the need to prioritise our mental health as much as we do our physical health.

During these unprecedented COVID-19 times there have been hundreds of articles online about how to adapt to lockdowns, the different emotional phases of a lockdown, how to practice mindfulness, and deal with social isolation. The increase in these types of online articles is in response to the general population never being in a similar situation where they could not go where they want, do what they want, or be with who they want. It can be said that the rest of the world is suffering from ‘pandemic fatigue’ because of ‘shelter-in-place’ orders and other restrictions imposed on them in the past six months.

Even before COVID-19, these types of restrictions existed for seafarers – this is part of their profession and way of life. They sail where they are told; they do what they are told; and they live, work, and interact with who they are told.

Many seafarers have stayed on board for 6–10 months. This is a normal contract period for many seafarers in international trade, but it is important to put things in perspective; although most people are feeling the emotional and psychological strains of the restrictions, many seafarers have had to extend their contracts beyond their contractual periods because of COVID-19 travel restrictions. This means that many of them have been on board for more than 12 months. To add insult to injury, they have also been denied shore leave and necessary medical attention.

If we are serious about mental health being as important as physical health then we cannot continue to accept that seafarers remain in a limbo, forgotten and abandoned by the governments and authorities who should protect them, protect their wellbeing, protect the safety of the ships, and protect the environment.

Safety at sea must also take into consideration the safety of seafarers’ health and wellbeing.