Women Seafarers' Health & Wellbeing Concerns

Women Seafarers' Health & Wellbeing Concerns

A new report designed to identify key areas of concern for women seafarers will be the centrepiece of a meeting on the health and wellbeing of a woman working at sea, to be held in London tomorrow. The new Women Seafarers’ Health and Welfare Survey is a joint initiative by the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN), the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), the International Maritime Health Association (IMHA), and the Seafarers Hospital Society (SHS).

The report of the Women Seafarers’ Health and Welfare Survey is being launched alongside the meeting and can be seen in full at Its executive summary appears below.

Among the findings of the survey, which was completed by 595 women seafarers, are that:

  • Nearly half of all respondents reported joint/back pain and stress/depression/anxiety were the two biggest health challenges they faced.
  • The biggest issue preventing women seafarers’ accessing healthcare while at sea was lack of confidentiality
  • Over half of respondents would welcome routine wellness checks

ITF maritime coordinator Jacqueline Smith commented: “This survey underlines how relatively little research there has been so far into women’s working lives at sea. It helps fill those gaps and shows how much more has to be done for us to see the number of women at sea break out of the current and unacceptable one to two percent of the workforce.

“We particularly welcome the fact that the survey points to relatively inexpensive and easily instituted improvements that can help make that change possible: confidentiality, a focus on stress, better heath information.”

Georgina Robinson, Health Development Manager at SHS said: “‘Partnership working has meant looking beyond the development of health initiatives, to the advantages of collaborative working. By sharing expertise, resources and capacity, new approaches in assessing health have been promoted through active involvement of community members, welfare representatives and researchers in all aspects of this with action to benefit the community involved.”

This is the introduction and executive summary of the new report:


It is estimated that 1-2% of the world’s 1.25m seafarers are women, serving on some 87,000 ships, mostly in the cruise sector. Research suggests that they continue to face discrimination and that there are areas where women seafarers’ specific needs are often overlooked. Health is likely to be one such area, and there has been a growing concern among health and welfare organisations that medical handbooks and other literature aimed at women seafarers are outdated and fail to provide a gendered perspective to health, or to consider health and related issues that are specific to women.

After recognising this possible gap in available health information and provisions which address health issues specific to women seafarers, representatives from IMHA, ISWAN, ITF and SHS designed an online pilot survey to find out how women currently working at sea view their health needs. This was conducted from the beginning of June 2014 for two months and was completed by 100 respondents. After reviewing the questions and results, a revised survey was devised and conducted between December 2014 and April 2015. In addition to the survey, two focus group sessions were held in Cebu with 20 Filipina cruise ship workers. Focus group participants discussed their survey answers in more detail and gave useful insight into the most common health challenges reported by respondents. The responses received highlight a small number of areas where relatively simple and low-cost interventions might improve the health and welfare of women seafarers as well as some complex issues which will need further investigation.

Executive Summary

An online survey of 595 female seafarers from 54 countries identified and prioritised perceived gaps in health and wellbeing provision. Participants were in the main under the age of 40, with those from non traditional maritime countries being younger. European seafarers and those from the non-cruise sectors are relatively over-represented. The survey was supplemented by the findings of two focus groups for cruise staff in the Philippines. It is acknowledged that those studied may not be representative of all groups of women working at sea. However these results provide important new information and update findings from earlier studies.

Participants were asked to select their top three health challenges – 47% identified joint/back pain, while stress/depression/anxiety was selected by 43%. Joint/back pain was less commonly identified by those working on cargo ships or tankers than in those working on cruise ships. However, stress/depression/anxiety is the top health challenge in both sectors. This difference may reflect the higher proportion of rating participants from the cruise sector who had physically demanding jobs This is supported by the focus group participants, who felt their joint/back pain was linked not only to the weight of the objects they carry, but also the distance they have to carry them. Some 75% reporting joint/back pain and 78% of those who experience stress/depression/anxiety considered that their health problems were connected to their work. Other common challenges were overweight/obesity issues (selected by 21% of respondents overall and 36% of the 51-60 age group), and heavy or painful periods (selected by 19%). Nearly a quarter of participants said they did not have any health challenges.

Problems with access to healthcare included confidentiality, selected by 37% of respondents working on tankers, 23% on cargo ship workers and 19% working on cruise ships. This is likely to be linked to concerns about job security. However, 50% of participants felt they had no difficulties in accessing healthcare on board or in port.

Nearly 40% of respondents said they did not have access to a sanitary bin on-board; however, there were notable variations across ranks and sectors. Access was usual in the cruise and ferry sectors (85%, 63%), but much lower elsewhere especially on tankers (27%).

17% of respondents identified sexual harassment as a problem, but nearly 50% of participants in an earlier pilot study said it was an issue; younger women reported this more frequently.

Recommendations include wide consultation on the need for further investigations, as well as the adoption of a range of relatively straightforward and inexpensive interventions. For example, the production of gender specific information on joint/back pain, mental health, nutrition and gynaecological complaints. In addition, the introduction of means for disposing sanitary waste for all female crew on all ships, as well as improved availability of female sanitary products on-board and in port shops worldwide.

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