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Seafarer health - It’s the life you lead

Seafarer health - It’s the life you lead
“There’s old captains and there’s bold captains, but there’s no old, bold captains” – is an ancient saying beloved of people who lecture about navigational safety. Its equivalents, advocating the somewhat unfashionable virtue of prudence, will be found, in every language, all over the world.

But whether they are cautious or reckless, it seems that because of the lifestyle provided by their profession, not enough captains and indeed other seafarers are enjoying a healthy old age. Commentators shouldn’t become too personal, but I have seen too many of my old shipmates dying well before their allotted span. There is more interest in the “wellbeing” of seafarers today and it’s not before time.

But is there a connection between the lives people live afloat and their long-term health? Some really quite disturbing findings have emerged from the three year “Martha” project undertaken by Warsash Maritime Academy with partners in Denmark and China. This follows on from the Horizon Project which used simulator voyages to establish the reality of fatigue as a maritime hazard and chronicle the deterioration of performance, notably during periods of 6 on- 6off watchkeeping.

Martha has instead used some 1,000 volunteer officers engaged in real voyages over many months to study the effects of long term fatigue, in a variety of different ship types and voyage patterns. They have kept diaries of their work and rest periods, these being validated by wrist worn “Actigraphs” which record activity in a “non-floggable” fashion. Questionnaires and interviews have provided further data and the researchers are confident that a far greater understanding of the nature and consequences of fatigue, as opposed to “mere” sleeplessness, has emerged as their analysis progressed.

Long periods of watchkeeping and irregular sleep patterns over 6-7 month voyages, it has been established, “drain the batteries” of the body in a way that may cause long-term health problems. There are obvious safety concerns. While the symptoms of fatigue might have become better known – behavioural changes, forgetfulness, fretfulness and irritability being just some of these - the research has provided more useful information on the causes. Factors contributing to fatigue range from fears about job security and stress, to the shipboard environment, quality of life aboard ship, heavy port work, irregular working hours, uncertainty about tour lengths, the burden or paperwork and stress of inspections, along with concern about the capabilities of shipmates.

But it is perhaps the contribution of the health professionals involved in the study which ought to concern those in the management of ships and shipping companies. Too many seafarers from all around the world, and in every age-range, exhibit chronic health effects which could be life-shortening. Large numbers suffer from cardio-vascular problems – 50% of those studied showed signs of hypertension, while even cadets showed signs of obesity.

Diet, nutrition, energy expenditure all showed deficiencies, with an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, allied to the effects of fatigue, and were all noted by the medical researchers. It seemed somewhat ironic that the findings of the Martha research were announced in Warsash, just a couple of days after the global celebrations of the “Day of the Seafarer”, one of the purposes of which seemed to be to encourage more recruitment. “Live afloat and die before your time!” – is not a desirable recruiting slogan.

Martha seems to suggest that responsible employers of seafarers ought to be taking its findings with the utmost seriousness. It could be that manning levels or watchkeeping patterns need to be examined, while the more deep thinking might consider the contribution of design, diet and the shipboard working environment to the seafarer’s sedentary lifestyle. The data seems clear enough and difficult to dispute. Now, the reaction of the more responsible in the industry needs to be positive and prompt.