COVID-19 creates new difficulties for certain cargo crews trapped on board ships

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Crews of freighters transporting goods around the world face increased pressure as ship operators plan to keep them at sea longer during the COVID-19 epidemic.

It comes at a time when restrictions and concerns over the virus are preventing crews from leaving their ships while in port, according to a union representing seafarers.

This means that some seafarers who sail long distances could spend almost a year on their ships, said Jim Given, president of the International Union of Seamen of Canada.

“What helps us keep our reason is the ability to get off this ship and go for a walk or go to a mall,” said Given.

Seafarers ensure that goods arrive safely from one place to another. They do not load or unload ships. This is done by the longshoremen.

Jim Given is President of the International Seafarers Union of Canada. (Submitted by Seafarers International Union of Canada)

It is estimated that 90% of the consumer staples used by Canadians are transported at one time or another on ships. The work of seafarers is considered essential because of this.

This is a difficult work. Most seafarers spend an average of three months on a ship and then have one month off.

But there are crews who can spend up to nine months on the ship.

Fears of crews being overturned by COVID-19 and crippling the shipping industry, some companies are considering extending the length of stay for sailors on the water to reduce the risk of exposure, according to Given.

“If you extend this into another month or two where you watch someone on board for almost a year, the stressor and the fatigue factor are just a little too much for people to handle,” he said. -he declares.

A tugboat guides the container ship Ever Ultra out of the docks at the Port of Vancouver in this file photo. Freight crews are responsible for the transportation of most of the goods that Canadians use daily. (David Horemans / CBC)

Extending the time crews spend at sea caught the eye of Chad Allen. He is Director of Maritime Operations for the Shipping Federation of Canada, a trade association that represents the international freight fleet in Canada.

“Some companies are considering these options,” said Allen.

“It comes down to keeping this ship in good health, and I think what some organizations might consider is to maintain that consistency and keep this ship running and avoid having the virus on board the ship. “

As a former seafarer, he said that isolation can be difficult, but many sailors can choose loneliness rather than risk landing and catching the virus.

The cargo ships are not really luxurious. Some of the new ships have weight rooms, recreational facilities, and satellite TV, but not much else.

Wi-Fi is limited and cell phone service is spotty or non-existent depending on location. This can make it difficult for crew members to stay in touch with family, said Given.

Chad Allen is Director of Maritime Operations for the Shipping Federation of Canada. (Submitted by Chad Allen)

The union and shipping companies around the world are trying to find a way to balance the health and safety of workers with the need to keep goods moving. This includes discussions on how long seafarers can stay on board ships, said Given.

Isolation is already beginning to weigh on some sailors, as ports like Singapore have ordered crews not to leave their ships. The union advised its members not to leave their ships in places like New York for fear of contamination.

“So you’re isolated on board, so the stressor is high,” said Given.

“Our guys are taking care of it. They are used to this. That’s what they do for a living, and they know how important their job is right now because without them, people don’t get what they need. “

The union and shipping companies have installed employee helplines that crews can access to help them cope with stress.

Shore leave for seafarers in Canada continues.

Transport Canada requests that all ports, terminals and marine facilities in the country continue to grant shore leave to seafarers, according to a ship safety bulletin published in March.

But shore leave will be refused if a seafarer shows signs of the virus.

Sailors are advised not to leave their ships in ports like New York, while some ports like Singapore do not allow crews to leave their ships. This photo shows the cargo ship CMA CGM Libra docked in the Port of Halifax. (Steve Farmer / Port of Halifax)

Access to shore leave for seafarers is “an important part of their health and emotional security, as well as their quality of life,” the bulletin said.

Since what really worries people in its industry is the possibility of a COVID-19 outbreak on board a ship.

“Because when you look at social distancing, it’s pretty hard to do on a ship,” said Given. “These are confined environments. “

Each worker is checked before boarding a ship. If they have symptoms similar to coronavirus, they are paid to stay at home, said Given.

To reduce the risk of exposure, only crew members are permitted on board the vessel. The only exception is emergency personnel in the event of a crisis.

A truck drives past some of the many containers it tows daily at the Port of Vancouver in this archive photo. Freight containers transport everything from medical supplies to food around the world. (David Horemans / CBC)

Ships also have emergency protective equipment on board and ships are cleaned more often to prevent the virus from accumulating on surfaces.

Transport Canada closely monitors all foreign vessels entering Canadian waters.

Foreign vessels must provide 96 hours notice before arrival and confirm the crew’s health, according to an email from Transport Canada spokesperson Annie Joanette.

Last month, the cargo ship Siem Cicero was denied entry to the port of Halifax after crew members showed symptoms compatible with COVID-19.

Since it is important that seafarers and other members of the transport industry do all they can to avoid catching the virus for their own health and that of others.

“Right now, the world’s sailors and transport workers are keeping food on the table and medicine in hospitals,” he said.

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