The COVID-19 pandemic taught us a lesson that we had forgotten. Health is always the top priority. Seafarers are no exception. Life onboard can be harsh due to the workload and isolation; for this reason, ship operators must alleviate some stress from seafarers, and ensure them that they will be safe. Let’s take a look on how ship operators can achieve this.
According to the ISM Code, ship operators are required to assess all identified risks to their ships and personnel and take the necessary measures. Therefore, shipping companies should develop plans and procedures to mitigate the risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic to the health of seafarers and the safety of their ship operations.
On board measures for ship operators
First and foremost, ship operators should provide seafarers (and passengers where applicable) with general information on COVID-19 and applicable standard health protection measures and precautions.
As we already know, human-to-human transmission of COVID-19 is taking place mainly through droplet spread. A person with COVID-19 coughs or sneezes, spreading droplets into the air and onto objects and surfaces in close proximity. Other people breathe in the droplets or touch the objects or surfaces and then touch their eyes, nose or mouth.
For this matter, Standard Infection Protection and Control (IPC) precautions emphasise the vital importance of hand and respiratory hygiene. Shipping companies should provide specific guidance and training for seafarers regarding:
- Frequent hand washing using soap and water or alcohol-based (at least 65–70%) hand rub for 20 seconds;
- Avoidance of touching the face including mouth, nose and eyes with unwashed hands);
- Covering the nose and mouth with a disposable tissue when sneezing, coughing, wiping and blowing the nose and disposal of the used tissue immediately into a waste bin;
- If a tissue is not available, covering the nose and mouth and coughing or sneezing into a flexed elbow;
- Aiming to keep at least one metre (three feet) distance from other people;
- Placing the toilet lid down before flushing;
- Handling meat, milk or animal products with care, to avoid cross-contamination with uncooked foods, consistent with good food safety practices.
Measures to manage embarkation and disembarkation
Embarkation of seafarers and passengers onto ships must be carefully managed to reduce the risk of a person infected with COVID-19.
According to ICS, during embarkation, ships should require seafarers (and any passengers) to complete a locator card, which may be used by the ship or provided to the relevant public authority to help with the tracing and contacting of persons in case of an outbreak or the potential for disease transmission on board the ship.
What is more, ship operators should introduce procedures such as screening questionnaires, temperature scanning or measurement, quarantine and testing. Namely, embarkation should not proceed for those registering a temperature reading of 38°C or above.
Nevertheless, despite the importance of body temperature scanning, this is not totally effective. As asymptomatic persons still carry the virus and transmit it to others, testing can help identify such persons who were not identified by other screening measures. Currently, testing should only be conducted by representatives of the port health authorities and only polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests are recommended.
As for disembarkation, screening questionnaires, temperature scanning or measurement, quarantine and testing should take place as well. More importantly, ship operators should ensure that testing is available in ports or terminals for seafarers (and any passengers) who will be disembarking from the ship.
Access to medical care
According to the ILO MLC 2006, port States must make sure that any seafarers on board ships in their territory who need immediate medical care are given access to medical facilities on shore. However, considering the difficulties to provide medical assistance nowadays, the person(s) responsible for on board medical care should be in direct contact with the receiving medical service.
Additionally, further medical care can be arranged through the ship’s agent or other port intermediaries. If a seafarer cannot be brought ashore for medical care, the person(s) responsible for on board medical care must seek advice from a TMAS or other medical advice service with experience in handling medical issues and to identify possible contacts on land, if this has not already been done.
Shipping industry must keep in mind that the ILO, IMO and WHO have reminded all member States that seafarers are key workers and entitled to medical care and assistance under the IHR, SOLAS, MLC and STCW. Shipping companies experiencing such issues should contact their flag State and telemedical services for urgent assistance. National shipowners associations should be informed, so that they can alert ICS which will take action at an international level.
Mental health during COVID-19
A pandemic puts additional stress to seafarers, which may impact mental health. For this reason, shipping companies should take a mental health emergency as seriously as a physical health emergency.
Seafarers may think they are having a mental health crisis and no longer feel able to cope or control their situation and may feel:
- Great emotional distress or anxiety;
- Unable to cope with daily life or work;
- Like considering self-harm or even suicide, or experience or hear voices (hallucinations).
If this happens, shipping operators should designate mental health professional for seafarers, to come up with the best course of action. If under the care of a mental health provider, they should contact the specific advisor for advice.