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Editorial comment

Bulk carriers are the workhorses of merchant fleet, transporting the raw materials that help us to house, heat, and feed our populations. Put simply, the bulk fleet is crucial to modern life. Driving the movement of the goods they carry are seafarers – the shipping industry’s most important and valuable asset.

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The COVID-19 pandemic taught us all lessons about the importance of safeguarding seafarer health and wellbeing if we want to maintain global supply chains. Due to government-imposed travel restrictions, many seafarers found themselves unable to return home, leaving them stuck on board their vessels for many months longer than anticipated. Apart from humanitarian and crew welfare concerns, as well as issues of regulatory compliance, there was the risk that fatigue would lead to serious maritime accidents. The situation was unsustainable for the safety and wellbeing of ships’ crew and the safe operation of maritime trade.

In our approach to seafarer safety, preparation is key to handling medical emergencies to achieve the best possible outcome. We can begin this before seafarers even board their ships. Pre-employment medical checks are sometimes the only time seafarers get to see a doctor, and so are a valuable opportunity to find out about any underlying illnesses and receive appropriate treatment before they begin work.

In times of emergency or unforeseen illness, seafarers need to be prepared through training to give medical care for both physical and mental illnesses. The Maritime Labour Convention 2006 and the STCW Convention states that all ships must carry either an international medical guide or national medical guide that seafarers can draw on should a medical emergency arise.

The ICS recently published the International Medical Guide for Seafarers and Fishers, written and reviewed by an international group of maritime medical practitioners. It was created with seafarers and fishers in mind – acknowledging that they are not medical professionals, and so are in need practical and clear guidance on procedures, medicines, and equipment. Shipowners must make sure that crew have access to easy-to-follow and up-to-date guidelines such as these. This is key to providing effective medical treatment on board.

Addressing the general wellness of the workforce must not be underestimated. We have seen the devastating impact that seafarer fatigue can have, not just on bulk carriers, but all types of shipping. We cannot ignore the positive influence that proper nutrition, hydration, and fitness has on the safety of day-to-day operations.

Dry bulk carries a diverse range of cargo and this can be challenging at times. Working under difficult conditions can take its toll, not just physically but mentally too. Just as with poor physical health, poor mental health can jeopardise the safe and efficient running of a ship. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated mental health issues, and emphasised the need for training around psychology. There are huge benefits to be gained when there is early involvement from mental health professionals and we need to make sure on-board medical guidance includes guidance specific to mental health.

The dry bulk industry and seafarers go hand in hand. Without one there is not the other. To ensure maritime trade can continue to operate, we must not forget to look after our people too, and equip them with the knowledge to tackle medical emergencies. A happy and healthy workforce makes all the difference to keeping vital goods moving safely and efficiently.