Invest in Seafarers’ Health for Human Sustainability and Increased Operational Efficiencies

SeafarersWorking conditionsMental health

Robust and proactive healthcare and public health solutions benefit maritime operators and their employees. The pandemic has highlighted deficiencies in seafarer health programs, while also pointing to new technology as an important enabler of better healthcare decision-making to improve human sustainability.

For years, leading Fortune 1,000 and erudite maritime companies have shown positive results from investing in pro-active health initiatives. Publications, articles, and studies show continued and increasing support for programs that invest in health and wellness to improve overall wellbeing amongst employees, which then in turn also drives engagement and productivity. There is humanity in taking care of people and profitability in doing it wisely.

There are different ways in which to embrace healthcare and human sustainability as a corporate strategy, especially if drawing on the definition of health from 1948 by the World Health Organization (WHO), which defines “health” as “A state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” This would make “health” not merely about the treatment and care for people with illness, but equally about protecting individuals and employees from illness through preventive healthcare and wellness programs.

One of the more recent studies on workforce health and wellbeing from Wellable provides ample evidence for the business case for companies to invest in human sustainability and healthcare for their employees. The study describes the benefits of different healthcare programs, including chronic disease management, fatigue, stress, mental health, and sleep management.

A study from Linchpin looks into the risk reductions and direct savings from investing in health and wellness programs. Among these is a reduction in direct risks stemming from five out of every seven health risks being improved in just one year; a 62% decrease in health care costs; 56% of employees present at work due to wellness programs; and, a 54% increase in productivity. Considering its remote, and often contained environment, ROI in the maritime industry would be even greater.

A Culture of Health in the maritime industry?

Making human sustainability a strategic priority is not only about driving down risk and reducing cost. When implementing a “Culture of Health” businesses take responsibility for the health and wellbeing of their employees, to the benefit of both. Cohesive health and wellness programs for seafarers are thus easily translated into improved health and safety onboard which, in turn, promotes a more engaged workforce.

Furthermore, it results in actual cost savings through minimized losses associated with absenteeism and “presenteeism” (working while ill), decreased illnesses, injuries, and fatalities, and a reduction in ship diversions and medical disembarkations. Moreover, risk and operational impact is reduced by less illness, accidents, and inattentiveness.

Implementing a comprehensive Culture of Health structure—for individual companies and the global maritime industry—may be critical in presenting a more united front to the global public at this time of perceived shipping chaos. Such a structure could include cost-effective healthcare programs that leverage maritime communication and medical technology improvements resulting in reduction of cost of delivery and service, as illustrated below:

Figure: Invest in Seafarers' Health

The wellbeing of seafarers is central

A recent Thetius report focused on crew safety, health and wellbeing at sea illustrates the current challenges, but also a constructive path forward using evolving technology as a means for improving overall human sustainability at sea. Because, as explained in the report: “Ensuring the safety of seafarers extends well beyond incidents, accidents, and emergency response. A more holistic approach to the overall well-being of those at sea must include their mental, social, and physical wellbeing.”

One of the more thought-provoking insights from the report describes how “circulatory diseases accounted for over 80% of nonaccidental deaths at sea. In one third of those cases, cardiac problems had already been diagnosed before the voyage. Cardiovascular disease is particularly prevalent in men over the age of 40, but it is often largely preventable. High blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, obesity, and a lack of exercise all contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease. Unfortunately for many seafarers, the three key tools to limiting the risk of cardiovascular disease, diet, sleep and exercise, are largely outside of their control”. But if deciding to pursue a “culture of health” in the maritime industry, it might actually be possible for ship owners and ship managers to help facilitate health prevention and facilitate the improvement of sleep, diet and exercise for seafarers.

Seafarer health is more than theoretical. It is fundamental and clearly adopted in the Neptune Declaration on Seafarer Wellbeing and Crew Change, which has been pledged by 850 companies to “Establish and implement gold standard health protocols based on existing best practice.” These gold standards are based on a high bar established by MLC 2006 in the Seafarer’s Employment and Social Rights, Article IV.

  1. Every seafarer has the right to a safe and secure workplace that complies with safety standards.

  2. Every seafarer has a right to fair terms of employment.

  3. Every seafarer has a right to decent working and living conditions on board ship.

  4. Every seafarer has a right to health protection, medical care, welfare measures and other forms of social protection.

Central to seafarer rights is the adoption of standards: of care, of definition, of scope – which can and should be defined by the industry itself, a well-vetted Outbreak Prevention and Response Plan (OPRP).

Learning from other industries and sectors

According to a recent study by Gallup wellness describes a healthy lifestyle - beyond acute illness, and a state of physical health in which people have the ability and energy to do what they want to do in life. To offer that to seafarers, would require the implementation of an industry-wide “culture of health”, which is particularly relevant as we fight the global COVID-19 pandemic.

However, just as we have seen on decarbonization, there is an opportunity for similar cooperation around seafarer sustainability in the global maritime industry. To do so, we need to engage everyone across the maritime value chain on finding shared solutions and develop human sustainability programs that can deliver not only tangible benefits to operators and crew, but also a healthier crew, and safer ship operation.