“Please raise the issue of seafarers exposure risk to COVID 19 before some unfortunate seafarers die onboard”
Some seafarers who have been in direct contact with Human Rights at Sea are increasingly calling for greater levels of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to be made more widely available, not just for themselves, but for those maritime workers who come onboard their vessels including surveyors, agents, pilots and stevedores, by way of example. This includes face masks and gloves.
On 31 January 2020, the WHO declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern under the WHO International Health Regulations (IHR) triggering an increased global response to the pandemic, while for seafarers, Regulation 4.3 of the 2006 Maritime Labour Convention applies and which covers ‘Health and safety protection and accident prevention‘ highlighting that: “1. Each Member shall ensure that seafarers on ships that fly its flag are provided with occupational health protection and live, work and train on board ship in a safe and hygienic environment.”
Worldwide, there is increased detailed reporting of port State measures by the likes of North P&I Club which highlights restrictions and the need for PPE, for example in Australia whereby: “Crew must also use personal protective equipment in public spaces on board the vessel whilst non-crew members are on board.” and in relation to Greece: “During the presence of MOH personnel on board, any crew members within a distance of less than 2 meters must wear all the protective equipment.”
For healthcare workers and infection prevention and control personnel in EU/EEA countries and in the United Kingdom, the minimal composition of a set of PPE for the management of suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19 as per the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control’s ‘Guidance for wearing and removing personal protective equipment in healthcare settings for the care of patients with suspected or confirmed COVID-19‘ dated February 2020, identifies a FFP2 or FFP3 respirator (valved or non-valved version), goggles (or face shield), long-sleeved water-resistant gown and gloves.
In reality, at the present time such high quality PPE may not be widely available, not individually recommended, nor realistic for use by crew, but the trend appears to be that seafarers are wanting to have access to it.
In the UK, it was reported that Richard Ballantyne, chief executive of the British Ports Association had commented: “PPE supplies – sanitiser, masks etc – are beginning to run low in some ports and this may soon start to have a knock-on effect”.
In the recent reported case of the Master of the MV Tomini Destiny refusing to off-load alongside the port of Chittagong, Bangladesh, due to crew concerns over contracting COVID-19 from excessive numbers of allegedly unscreened local stevedores not using PPE, the Master asked for PPE to be made available for crew use during ongoing shipboard operations which included gloves and face masks, as well as for remote off-loading by barges away from port wharves.
In that case, the owners responded, issued the crew with comprehensive PPE, and sanctioned the off-loading in outer anchorages as part of the compromise. Nonetheless, consistent use of PPE can not be guaranteed by workers involved in offloads when in contact with crew members.
The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) issued its ‘Coronavirus (COVID-19) Guidance for Ship Operators for the Protection of the Health of Seafarers‘ on 3 March 2020 in line with current UN agency guidances, though this currently advises that: “Although face masks may provide some protection – especially if there is a risk of exposure when interacting with persons from outside the ship – the routine use of face masks is not generally recommended as protection against COVID-19. WHO advises that it is appropriate to use a mask when coughing or sneezing. If an individual is healthy, it is only necessary to wear a mask if the person is taking care of a person with the suspected COVID-19 infection.”
This view is not necessarily shared by frontline seafarers who appear to be seeking greater reassurance for individual levels of protection as the pandemic unfolds, including the individual right to wear PPE such as masks and gloves.
One crew member in contact with HRAS stated: “Please raise the issue of seafarers exposure risk to COVID 19 before some unfortunate seafarers die onboard”.
In the case of the cruise line industry, the recent news of the death from COVID-19 of Wiwit Widarto, 50, of Indonesia was recently reported in the New York Times.
Meanwhile, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and the International Maritime Health Association (IMHA) have consistently highlighted the essential need for seafarers to be properly protected, with ITF stating that amongst four other areas of response, there is the need for “putting health and safety first“, while the IMHA stated in an online document that there should be “facial protection for all crew (5 pieces /per person)“.
Under UK law, shipowners must provide the requisite PPE at no cost to the employee mariner, while the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE), “recommends the use of FFP3 respirators when caring for patients in areas where high risk aerosol generating procedures (AGPs) are being performed. When FFP3 respirators are not available, then FFP2 respirators may be used.” Also noting that: “The World Health Organisation(WHO) recommends FFP2 and N95 respirators for AGPs and these are widely used in other countries. The N95 respirator is not CE marked but has been tested against standards similar to European standards.”