Advocating for Seafarers’ Health

Jun 1, 2015

In 2014, the Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI) began collaborating with two prominent American medical institutions to focus on preventative medicine and healthy lifestyles for seafarers. At its Center in Port Newark, students from Rutgers University School of Nursing provide health assessments, preventative medicine and healthy living advice for seafarers. Data collected from their measurements contribute to a Yale University School of Medicine study on seafarers’ health.

Many jobs present challenges and hazards to their employees. Living and working on board an international cargo ship affects seafarers’ health in various ways. Like any job, seafarers must take certain precautions, combating vulnerabilities that result from the type of work they do. When armed with the right know-how, seafarers lead normal, healthy lives, but not all seafarers have the information they need. That comes as no surprise, as knowledge about seafarers’ health remains largely undocumented and under-evaluated—a fact SCI seeks to change.

Seafarers must take care of themselves—mentally and physically—in ways that match their busy work schedule and isolated work environment. SCI, along with other seafarer welfare agencies around the world, recognizes the importance of making sure seafarers feel supported and stay knowledgeable about issues related to their wellbeing. SCI aims to give seafarers a safe place to consult a health professional and to collect data that could give a clearer picture of seafarers’ health worldwide.

“Everything seafarers do is for someone else,” notes nursing student Jackie Bundock, pointing out why seafarers might need advocates. Jackie worked as part of a team of student nurses who set up shop at SCI’s Port Newark International Seafarers’ Center on Tuesdays this past term. Student nurses like Jackie help seafarers obtain information on their weight, blood pressure, BMI and blood glucose—things not easily monitored while alone at sea for months on end. Student nurses also give information on medical issues like hypertension, hyperglycemia and insomnia. For times outside of clinic hours, SCI has installed a HealthCENTER Kiosk, which seafarers can use to obtain standard health screenings anytime. As part of this program, SCI also makes a fitness center available, free of charge to seafarers.

Yale University uses the medical data collected by the nursing students and the health kiosk to conduct valuable research on seafarers’ health. Martin Slade, MPH and Dr. Rafael Lefkowitz from Yale University Medical School’s Department of Occupational and Environmental Medicine are leading the study. SCI anticipates this collaborative effort will yield new insights, increase seafarer wellness and help support the industry as a whole.

This seafarers’ wellness initiative continues SCI’s long history of work to provide for seafarers’ health and wellbeing. In 1920, SCI established a wireless radio service that provided free medical advice to ships at sea. In the 1930’s era of cuts in public health budgets, SCI opened medical clinics in its Manhattan seafarers’ building. In 2009, SCI and Mt. Sinai School of Medicine initiated a groundbreaking study of piracy’s effects on seafarers’ mental health and published guidelines on caring for seafarers affected by piracy.