It was hot, and we were down in those “little latitudes” off the coast of Belize. I was on a crude oil tanker just out of the shipyard, en route to Panama for a canal crossing. The chief mate had James, an able seaman, and me working in empty cargo tanks, tightening down the nuts, securing the double bottom ballast tank access cover plates.
All morning our energy level progressively sagged, as we lugged buckets of tools six stories up and down into the tanks. Just before it was time to knock off for lunch, both of us were wrung out and tired. As we finished up the last set of bolts in the No. 3 starboard tank, I wondered how I was going to muster enough energy for the last long climb up the ladder to daylight at the tank top. About halfway up, James all of a sudden dropped his bucket of tools, falling hard on the steel steps as he grabbed his right leg and cried out, “My leg’s cramping bad.”
He writhed in pain and rubbed his leg as I stood by next to him, making sure he didn’t fall down the ladder or slip off the landing to the tank bottom 30 feet below. After 10 minutes or so, he recovered enough that I was able to help him climb the rest of the way up and make it out of the tank.
Another time I was working on a tanker running between Hawaii and Alaska. The captain and chief mate were fond of long fire and boat drills, many of which lasted an hour or longer. During a drill when we were one day’s sail from our destination, the offshore moorings at Barbers Point, the hose team I was in charge of got the order to suit up in full firefighting gear. That meant the 12-4 able seaman and QMED (qualified member of the engine department) had to don their heavy 30-pound fire suits and 25-pound SCBAs (self-contained breathing apparatus).
It was a hot, tropical summer day, and for nearly an hour the hose team fought a simulated fire in the galley that spread to “B” deck. When the order finally came down to wrap things up and put the equipment away, I went over to help the QMED remove his fire suit and SCBA. When he got his helmet off, I could see he was drenched in sweat and looking pale. Then, without warning, he reeled back unsteadily and started to fall. Luckily, the third engineer and I caught him as he fainted. After some rest and fluids, he regained his strength.
James’ severe leg cramps and the QMED fainting were both symptoms of heat stress, which can have effects ranging from skin rashes and cramps to dizziness and fainting. The treatment depends on the severity of the exposure, but always involves getting the person cooled down, rehydrated and rested. Serious heat stress can lead to heat exhaustion and heat stroke, an urgent medical condition that can result in death if rapid cooling of the patient isn’t done immediately.
Agencies as diverse as the International Labor Organization, the World Health Organization, and the U.S. Navy recognize that heat stress is an occupational hazard of going to sea. A recent German study noted that excessive heat in the shipboard workplace is a major concern for commercial mariners. According to the International Medical Guide for Ships, second edition, engineers working day in and day out near boilers or hot engines, and crewmembers working on deck in hot sunny conditions are among those most at risk for heat-related problems.
Effective heat stress prevention at sea focuses on two main areas — education and monitoring. The U.S. Navy has established an excellent heat stress control program on its vessels that not only includes classes teaching shipboard personnel about heat stress but the use of monitoring equipment on board as well. These devices track the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) index in various spaces on Navy ships, such as the galley, engine room and on deck. The WBGT index was first developed by the military to reduce heat stress injuries and factors in temperature, humidity, wind speed and radiant (solar) energy to determine the safe exposure periods for crewmembers working in high temperature areas. Unfortunately, heat stress monitoring/prevention programs like the U.S. Navy’s are virtually nonexistent on commercial vessels.
When I first began my career with a large tug company in Southern California, there seemed to be little concern about heat-related problems — despite the fact that 12-hour days in the blistering sun were the norm. However, on my last tanker, a product carrier running between Hawaii and Vancouver, British Columbia, the crew was very aware of heat stress prevention — largely due to the efforts of the chief mate. During cargo operations in the hot tropical sun, a cooler filled with an iced sports drink, a tarp set up near the manifold for shade and a rotation system that made sure everyone on deck got regular breaks out of the sun were all required. We even saw a video that discussed heat exhaustion and heat stroke during a safety meeting before we arrived in Hawaii.
In my opinion, to help eliminate heat stress and the accidents and injuries it causes, preventive measures like those above should be included in the safety management system (SMS) procedures on commercial vessels — along with a monitoring program using low-cost portable WBGT index meters. Nothing can replace being alert on the job, however. Looking back on the times I ignored the heat, with James and that QMED, I now realize I was just lucky that something worse didn’t happen. Until the day when heat stress monitoring/prevention programs are mandated, it truly is up to us to help keep an eye out for our shipmates and ourselves.
Till next time I wish you all smooth sailin’.
Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at email@example.com.