New international standard to require medical exam every other year

Just as U.S. mariners and the Coast Guard are finally getting accustomed to the nation’s more stringent medical requirements, a new international agreement may place even more strain on the licensees’ regimen of physical exams.

Soon, mariners will need to see a doctor for checkups every two years and earn a newly created “medical certificate,†according to the latest International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) agreement.

Most U.S. mariners currently are required to have a physical exam when they renew their merchant mariner’s license every five years. The exception is pilots, who need annual physicals.

The two-year cycle and medical certificates were approved at the STCW’s June 2010 convention in Manila, Philippines. The U.S. Coast Guard this year will announce a proposed rule for implementing the change by 2017.

The Staten Island Ferry Andrew J. Barberi was heavily damaged after it struck a pier, killing 11 passengers, in 2003. That accident and other casualties involving crew health issues have prompted maritime authorities to scrutinize crewmembers’ fitness. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

Many STCW member countries already require medical exams every two years. The 2010 delegates acknowledged that more scrutiny is needed to ensure the fitness of mariners, said Capt. Ernest Fink, chairman of the Department of Professional Education and Training at SUNY Maritime College.

The current STCW language says merely that mariners must “hold a valid document attesting to their medical fitness,†said Fink, who was a delegate to the Manila gathering, representing the International Association of Maritime Universities.

“I think they were seeing the aging mariner population and seeing more and more mariners with medical problems and more and more medications and things that make you drowsy and less alert,†Fink said. “There was a need to get a little more specific.â€

The industry will have some say in how the rule is rolled out in the United States. The Coast Guard plans to issue a Supplemental Notice of Proposed Rulemaking this year, said Mayte Medina, chief of the Coast Guard’s maritime personnel qualifications division. STCW requires the nations to begin the two-year cycle for applying for licenses beginning in July 2015, with all mariners requiring the two-year certification by July 2017.

“One way would be to start that right in 2012. Or the other way of doing it might be to wait until 2015, and you would have to come back and get the two-year medical in 2017,†Medina said. “That’s why the comment period helps. We will find out what the industry prefers.â€

When the Coast Guard implemented its new medical Navigation and Vessel Inspection Circular (NVIC) in 2008, the National Maritime Center (NMC) underestimated the number of license applicants whose cases would require a medical review. The backlog caused delays of several months for many mariners. The NMC reacted by hiring a larger team of temporary and full-time medical professionals to review the paperwork, and those waiting periods eventually were curtailed.

After 2017, the Coast Guard will need to process approximately the same number of medical files every two years instead of five.

“The implementation for the Coast Guard is going to be a challenge,†Medina said. “It’s going to require more resources.â€

Mariners are already worried about the additional burden, said Capt. Joe Dady, president of the National Mariners Association.

“We’re not happy with it,†Dady said. “This is another bone of contention that is just going to be placed on the bare shoulders of the mariner. It could put a strain on the employment pool. If they don’t have our two-year (certificate ready) and they can’t get it done, are they going to tell us we can’t go to work?â€

Fink, a retired Coast Guard officer and a former NMC commander, said the industry probably would prefer that the two-year medical exam fall midway through the five-year license cycle, but the international rules may not allow it. Therefore, a mariner’s medical-certificate schedule likely will be decoupled from the licensing framework altogether and placed on a separate schedule, like the radar endorsement is.

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff