7 Dangerous Diseases Seafarers Should Be Aware Of

Credits: Flavio Gasperini/Unsplash

Working on ships has its perks, but it’s also a well-known fact that working at sea is one of the most hazardous occupations, in regards to personal health and safety concerns of seafarers. Apart from accidents, seafarers are prone to certain serious diseases and health hazards due to the nature of onboard work, change in climatic conditions, type of cargo carried, working hours, materials being handled, epidemic and endemic diseases, personal habits etc.

Although seafarers go through a strict medical test before joining a vessel, it is evident that the life of seafarers is constantly at risk while out at sea and what makes it more worse is the lack of professional medical attendance (doctors) on board.

Marine Insight discusses about the diseases/illnesses that can commonly occur working onboard merchant marine vessels at sea.

Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS)

Hand transmitted vibration is one of the major hazards that several seafarers face during their course of work. Operating power tools such as chipping machine (rust bust), needle guns and hand held grinders is the main reason for such syndrome. Frequent and prolonged exposure to such power tools results in hand –arm vibration syndrome and it may lead to permanent disability if not treated in time.

The common symptoms of this hazard are tingling of fingers, numbness and blanching and even pain in the arm and wrist. Lack of awareness and improper guidelines on safe limits of usage or exposure to such tools and machinery, along with other factors such as smoking, circulatory problems and improper diet etc. make seafarers more vulnerable to this disease.

Cardio-Vascular Disease (CVD)

Cardio- vascular disease is as commonly found in the seafaring community as in the general population. Various mortality studies have revealed that the percentage of seafarers who die because of cardio vascular diseases is because of common factors which are a combination of genes, age, smoking and other reasons influenced by conditions aboard such as stress, diet, lack of exercise etc. With minimum number of crew on board ships, multitasking, and lack of leisure and recreation facilities, high stress levels are prevalent among seafarers, which is a major cause for Cardio Vascular diseases.

Although medicines such as isosorbidedinitrate , glycerol –tirnirate for acute chest pain and metoprolol tartrate, adrenaline, atropine for heart rhythm disorders are available on board, in case of a severe heart stroke, which requires immediate medical assistance, evacuation to the shore becomes difficult or sometimes impossible, posing great risk to the lives of seafarers.

Musculoskeletal Disorder (MSD)

According to a survey conducted by a European based health research facility on board Norwegian and Danish flag offshore vessels mainly (PSV and AHTS), seafarers were reported to suffer from serious disorders related to muscular and skeleton structure of their body. The reason was that as offshore operations are carried out by modern fleets with high end technology and round the clock schedules in all types of weather conditions, many seafarers work on straight 12 hours shift or 6 on 6 off shifts, which leaves them with very less time to do any major physical activities.

MSD is a main cause for many seafarers to take longer breaks from sea life, sometimes even leading to disability. As they say prevention is better than cure, exercise and stretching is recommended to prevent Musculoskeletal Disorder. Modern ships have good gym facilities but lack of time and motivation is a great challenge faced.


1 out of 8 deaths globally is because of cancer and the scenario is getting worse. As far as seafarers are concerned there has also been a gradual increase in various cases of cancers. The most common among them being lungs cancer, renal Cancer, leukaemia and lymphoma. Even though occupational hazardous such as asbestos, benzene, benzidines are being removed or substituted on ships, new potential carcinogens such as beryllium (used on Product tankers), cadmium, lead etc. have been introduced in to the work place.

Officers and crew working on both deck and engine fall prey to this deadly disease due to continuous exposure to such toxic substances. Personnel working on oil, chemical and product tankers are majorly exposed to chemicals and the risk of developing various types of cancer, including brain cancer and leukaemia, is extremely high. Other factors such as smoking, exposure to UV radiation, lack of sleep etc. also aggravate conditions leading to cancer.

Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD)

Just like food and water, sex is a basic need of all human beings and seafarers are no different. Traveling to different countries make seafarers vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/ AIDS and venereal diseases like gonorrhea and syphilis. AIDS is a major concern because it results into serious consequences on both professional and personal life.

In recent days, seafarers do not fit the stereo type of having a woman in every port, but owing to long term isolation, lack of leisure and recreation facility and availability of strong sex industry in almost every port of call, seafarers are easily susceptible to unsafe sexual activities and make them a victim of fatal diseases. Creating awareness among seafarers about sexually transmitted disease can minimize and prevent the risk of transmission; however only self-discipline and control can completely eradicate the disease.

Pandemic And Epidemic Diseases

Because of their nature of work, seafarers are bound to visit many ports in different parts of the world and are thus exposed to various pandemic and epidemic diseases such as malaria, cholera, yellow fever, tuberculosis etc. Seafarers are vaccinated and medically checked thoroughly; however they are in major danger of being exposed to sudden outburst of new diseases in areas they visit. An example can be the recent outburst of EBOLA in West African countries.

The best practice for such situations is to use all preventive measures to contain the spread of contagious diseases on board. The master and the crew should be informed about the diseases before docking and restriction of people embarking the vessel and shore leaves can be effectively controlled to prevent such illness from spreading.


Hypertension is mentioned as one of the major occupation hazards onboard merchant and offshore fleets. Excessive stress, fatigue, loneliness, smoking, consumption of alcohol, lack of physical activity etc. are the main causes for the same. Hypertension can also lead to other illnesses like stroke, renal failure etc. Change in lifestyle and food habits, quitting smoking and alcohol, engaging in physical activities such as exercises, swimming, yoga etc. can reduce hypertension to a great extent.

Given the demanding nature of the work at sea, possibilities of completely eradicating these diseases and disorders is nearly impossible. One should realize that these diseases are the outcome of the work seafarers are involved in.

In many cases in the past, seafarers have been denied compensation for disabilities and death, even though most of the above mentioned diseases are listed by ILO as occupational hazard. It’s therefore important that seafarer are provided with all the support in times of such unfortunate situations or events, which has occurred while he or she has been carrying out day to day responsibilities.

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Source: Marine Insight


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