Seafarers demand greater levels of personal protective equipment both for themselves and workers they come into contact with in daily operations

Seafarers have been in touch with the charity Human Rights at Sea (HRAS) calling for greater levels of personal protective equipment (PPE) including face masks and gloves 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.

On January 31, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern under the WHO international health regulations, triggering an increased global response to the pandemic, while for seafarers, regulation 4.3 of the 2006 Maritime Labour Convention applies, which covers health and safety protection and accident prevention highlighting that each member shall ensure that seafarers on ships that fly its flag are provided with occupational health protection and live, work and train onboard 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, Richard Ballantyne, chief executive of the British Ports Association was quoted recently, saying: “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 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.

The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) issued its Coronavirus (COVID-19) Guidance for Ship Operators for the Protection of the Health of Seafarers on March 3 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, many of whom have told HRAS in recent weeks that they are wanting greater reassurance for individual levels of protection as the pandemic unfolds, including the individual right to wear PPE such as masks and gloves.

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 the IMHA stating 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.”

Sam Chambers

Starting out with the Informa Group in 2000 in Hong Kong, Sam Chambers became editor of Maritime Asia magazine as well as East Asia Editor for the world’s oldest newspaper, Lloyd’s List. In 2005 he pursued a freelance career and wrote for a variety of titles including taking on the role of Asia Editor at Seatrade magazine and China correspondent for Supply Chain Asia. His work has also appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, The Sunday Times and The International Herald Tribune.


  1. As the wife of a seafarer I am used to a life of either waiting for my husband to return or bidding him goodbye. But for the first time, I am worried and helpless, for he can neither come home though he has completed his contract and nor is he safe there as his ship has just come out of an Italian port.

    The crew on a ship FEARS the people coming from ashore who could carry the virus to them (pilot, agent, government /health officials). Just ONE infection could spread rapidly as they live in closed spaces. There is no doctor, ICU or ventilator on board. They are too far away at sea to get prompt attention and every country’s medical system is already overwhelmed.

    The only way we can ensure seafarers safety is by implementing: A “ZERO CONTACT ” policy- for all cargo / port operations and NO ONE enters their accommodation. Shipping operations should be restricted to those Ports which can support this policy.

    We, as a society, cannot afford for seafarers to go on strike which will disrupt global supply chains.This needs an urgent response – as every day lost enhances the risk to their life.

  2. Please find below the link to my petition on Change.org to bring about a ZERO CONTACT POLICY IN PORT/ CARGO OPERATIONS to keep the sailors safe from Covid 19. The petition has already got the support of 4,657 sailors and their families.

    These sailors need to feel safe as they maintain the world’s supply chain.


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