Thursday, September 18, 2008

New Medical Requirments

Here we go again; the requirements for a career at sea are once again getting beefed up. Now sailors can get in the same line at the doctors office as commercial aviators! I just received a notice from my employer stating that the U.S. Coast Guard Medical Guidelines "Could have a significant impact on your license renewal". Apparently taking a prescription drug, having any one of the 291 medical conditions (Including headaches and depression) listed along with the letter, or having a body mass index over 40 would require a medical waiver. The waiver of course means that processing anything with the new NMC in West Virgina could face "Significant Delays".

Lets be realistic about this. Anyone who works in the maritime industry knows that the average mariner is not a specimen of health. We spend great lengths of time in an isolated environment with high stress working conditions, wanting of sleep, fed poor quality food, encouraged and sometimes expected to work long hours with hardly any outlet for relieving the tension, loneliness, and fatigue experienced at sea. We do not get weekends off, nights at home with family, conjugal visits or even a beer after work. This environment can and often does lead to less than healthy lifestyles. Overeating and smoking is typical. Lack of exercise and replacing quality sleep with caffeine is commonplace. Who wants to spend time in the gym after a twelve or fourteen hour day when you can instead crash out until all hands is called in the middle of you're rest period?

We are not treated like jet pilots or compensated like them. But now we must have a waiver for anything less than optimum health. And who knows how long it will take the medical evaluators to grant those waivers each time we must have a piece of paper approved by the Coast Guard?

I do agree with some of the provisions of the new standards. Though flawed, the body mass index will provide encouragement for sailors to monitor their weight. My body mass index for being a modest 5'6" and weighing 160 pounds is 26, a number that comically puts me in the "overweight" category but well under a BMI of 40. I would have to pack 86 pounds on to qualify as "Extremely Obese". Not likely but on my last trip I worked with four people who were nearly at or slightly above a BMI of 40. Certainly that is cause for concern when you're at sea and relying on that person to don fire fighting gear and follow you into a smoky compartment. How people this close to being handicapped by body weight can be qualified as fit for duty over and over again is concerning.

In this way these new regulations may have a positive affect as long as the industry as a whole takes it upon themselves to provide a healthier environment for their employees and promote better living while at work and at home. What I'm talking about is preventative health care. Rather than the companies dealing with the outcomes of ill health like discharging crew for medical issues over seas or fighting lawsuits for back injuries the new physical standards can be used as a target. Having healthier employees would lessen injuries and sickness both of which are capital intensive but if the industry thinks they'll just wash out the overweight and sick think again, there won't be anyone left to hire.

Instead an approach of improving the health of the existing labor force might work. Perhaps the quality of provisions and the methods of preparing it should be addressed. Less frying in trans-saturated fat for starters. Maybe shedding pounds or investing time in exercise might be rewarded by the companies. A back injury is much less likely for some one who can carry their own weight up and down ladders and move loads without the aid of back braces.

I know it's a long shot given the nature of shipping companies. My captain for instance practically had to beg the company to purchase a single used elliptical machine for the ship, the only piece of cardiovascular equipment now on board. Besides, for those of us who do routinely work out at sea, aren't we sometimes looked at with disdain by other crew as we walk back to our rooms breathing hard and sweating as if we've just been sunning ourselves on overtime? (I always tell them to add up the time they take smoke breaks while actually on overtime and compare it to my forty five minutes in the gym).

Maybe we can take a cue from the Swedes. A company I am familiar with actually has an Activity Challenge where crew members record hours spent exercising, submitting them to a director ashore and then receive points for rewards and lottery drawings. Not a bad idea, perhaps a start at getting the dwindling pool of certified labor to meet the increasing physical requirements for a trade that does not promote low blood pressure.

It's either that or my employer needs to start hiring less experienced younger, healthier employees and start paying them like commercial aviators to staff the ships and offshore installations.

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