What is wellness at sea? This was the question examined at a recent conference sponsored by the Sailors’ Society in Singapore. The conference featured several speakers who are experts in a variety of areas affecting seafarers’ health, well-being and efficiency.
In a panel devoted to seafarers’ wellness, Dr. Rafael Lefkowitz outlined the research that Yale University Medical School is conducting on seafarers’ occupational health, highlighting the importance of the research both to seafarers and shipowners. (The Seamen’s Church Institute and Sailors’ Society are in collaboration with Yale on this research.) Also discussed in this panel was the importance of seafarers being provided with a nutritionally balanced diet. Recommendations to improve seafarers’ diets included training on nutrition for all seafarers, not just cooks, and instituting regular food meetings (similar to safety meetings) on board ships where all crewmembers could make suggestions for improved meals. Discussions on seafarers’ emotional and mental health were also highlighted in this and other panels. Training for seafarers in identifying the effects of stress both on themselves and their shipmates was emphasized, as well as the need to reduce the stigma of mental health care.
In my presentation, I outlined the rights of seafarers to medical care and nutritious food which date back to ancient times, and the medical care provisions of the Maritime Labour Convention which later codified them. I emphasized that these rights originated from customary business practices developed in the best interests of ship-owners, i.e. that it is cost effective for them to invest in the wellness of their seafarers.
Another panel looked at the impact of modern communications on seafarer wellbeing. There is a debate in the industry about the value of restricting seafarers’ access to social media. This is an important issue given the perception among seafarers that access to the Internet is akin to a human right, but this must be balanced against cyber-security risks. One speaker pointed out that today’s seafarers have a need for access to the Internet and that restrictions are generally ineffective and counterproductive.
The take-away from the conference was that there are many factors affecting the wellness of seafarers that need to be addressed throughout the maritime industry, and that measures taken to safeguard seafarers’ wellness are cost effective. Investing in seafarer wellness pays great dividends!
Douglas B. Stevenson Esq., Director, Center for Seafarers' Rights