Occupational Health and Safety in the Maritime Sector Against COVID-19 

October, 2020 - Teylu SepĂșlveda, Lorena Rivas, Katiusca Mendoza

As a consequence of the spread of COVID-19, certain protection and prevention measures have been developed in order to safeguard health in the different sectors that are operational. In this report we will share security measures implemented in Venezuela aimed at protecting the health of operators and personnel working in ports and at sea, as well as some recommendations established by international organizations.

1. Legal regime of the maritime sector under the State of Alarm

At present, Venezuela is in a State of Alarm in accordance with the provisions of Decree No. 4,160 [1] issued by the National Executive and its latest extension [2] , given the social circumstances that put public health at risk and the security of the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Among the measures adopted in the aforementioned Decree, the suspension of activities considered non-essential was included, as well as the power to restrict movement and work activities in certain areas or geographical zones was reserved.

However, the Decree does provide that activities related to the National Port System will not be suspended , nor will the activity of fuel dispensing companies intended to supply service stations located in ports. At the same time, it imposes the obligation to use masks that cover the nose and mouth in the maritime terminals.

On the other hand, the Organic Labor Law for Male and Female Workers [3] (LOTTT), in its Chapter VI, dedicated to Work in Maritime, River and Lacustrine Navigation, establishes the provisions regarding the rights and obligations between the parts of this sector. In its article 257 it establishes that: " All the crew will be obliged to remain on board in the cases in which the ship has been declared in quarantine".

Faced with all these contingencies, the Captain of the Ship , as established by the Law of Marinas and Related Activities [4] , is the highest authority on board, and therefore, everyone on board will be under his command. The Captain of the Ship is considered in foreign waters and on the high seas as a delegate of the Public Authority, and as such is responsible for the safety and preservation of passengers, crew and cargo. For this reason, it is the person who must adopt the extraordinary measures pertinent to any serious situation, until other competent authorities are present, and together with the National Institute of Aquatic Spaces (INEA), it will guarantee compliance with the requirements on the protection of the health and medical assistance of seafarers, under the terms and conditions established by law.

In this regard, the INEA has issued a series of Circulars that establish different measures to take into account due to the spread of COVID-19, among these we can highlight Circular No. 14 of April 27, 2020, by means of which the guidelines for the mobilization of seafarers and associated personnel at the ship-port interface. Said Circular emphasizes a special procedure, in which it grants a safe-conduct to “Key Workers [5] ” who provide an essential service to facilitate maritime transport and port operations.

In this sense, to request the safe conduct before the aquatic authority, the work entity that represents the Key Workers must enter the INEA web portal [6] , complete the fields and follow the indications.

On the other hand, the Port Captain , who is in charge of executing the policies and guidelines issued by the body that exercises the aquatic authority, must comply with the provisions of Circular No. 09 (Special Notice 006-COVID-19) of 16 March 2020, in which it is attributed the duty to coordinate with regional health authorities to make the best decisions in order to avoid unnecessary delays of ships and crew and cargo movements.

The Coordination of Maritime Medicine of the INEA, in conjunction with designated maritime physicians, will establish protocols for the prevention, quarantine, isolation and transfer of patients suspected of having the symptoms of COVID-19, emphasizing the preventive measures they must take. all the people involved in the ship-port interface. In this sense, they must be periodically instructed with the official gazettes published by the World Health Organization, and carry out the mandatory documentation inspection visits referred to in the Law of Marinas and Related Activities .

2. Technical guidelines in the maritime sector during the pandemic

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) i nvitó Member States and international organizations to implement the guidelines for COVID-19 to ensure the safety of the interaction on board between staff of the ship and shore personnel, and distribution to the relevant national authorities with responsibilities in maritime affairs, health, customs, immigration, border control, among other areas; and to communicate with national authorities, as appropriate, regarding the use and implementation of the guidelines.

 These guidelines have been accepted by the INEA in the following way: 

  • Request ships to report, as soon as possible and before arrival, to the competent authority of the port any case of illness on board indicating the infection related to COVID-19.
  • Recommend ships to regularly monitor on-board personnel while in port to detect the appearance of any symptoms associated with COVID-19, and report any changes in health circumstances of workers on board to the authority relevant port.
  • Consider temporarily restricting shipboard workers while the ship is in port (unless or until the situation allows otherwise), unless such workers disembark as part of a crew change or to receive medical care from emergency not available on board ship.
  • Limit, as far as possible, the number of interactions between shipboard personnel and port entities only to those critical and essential for the continuity of the ship's operation and supply.
  • Provide information to dockworkers on basic protection measures against COVID-19, taking into account advice from WHO.
  • Ensure that those who work in ports and have access to ships have adequate personal protective equipment (which could include masks, hand sanitizers and other means to prevent the spread of the virus) before coming into contact with seafarers .
  • Call on port authorities and dock workers to comply with any investigation or other protocols or procedures introduced by visiting vessels to address COVID-19.

 Similarly, the risks in this specific category of workers can be divided into:

  • Technical risks (human errors in the operation of the ship that results in maritime accidents);
  • Natural risks (environmental and sea conditions), and
  • Social risks (abandonment abroad, refusals of repatriation, inhumane working conditions, etc.) that make special treatment necessary and imperative.

In this sense, as part of the control process, it is recommended that before arrival at port the ship communicates its requirements related to managing the risks posed by COVID-19 to all planned service providers, and to port officials. whose presence on board is planned during the stopover, which can be coordinated through the ship's port agent, as appropriate.

  1. Public health aspects and recommendations

Of the evaluations carried out jointly by the ILO, the WHO and the IMO, of the guidelines published in the INEA, concatenated with the provisions that the Organic Law of Labor of Workers, the Organic Law of Prevention, Conditions and Environment Work Environment (LOPCYMAT), and special laws that govern the matter, it is concluded that the following recommendations must be complied with, in order to protect the health and safety of seafarers.

General recommendations. 

  • Frequent hand washing by the crew and operators.
  • Avoid touching your face, especially certain areas such as the mouth, nose and eyes.
  • Workers should be encouraged to cover their nose and mouth with a tissue when sneezing, coughing, and / or blowing their nose, immediately removing it thereafter.
  • If a tissue is not available, operators should cover their nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing with the elbow flexed.
  • All tissues must be disposed of immediately in a trash container.
  • Keep at least one meter (3 feet) away from other people, especially those with some symptoms.
  • Meat, milk and animal products should always be handled with care to avoid cross contamination with raw food, in accordance with good food safety practices.

 Specific recommendations. 

  • Vessels must develop a plan, in writing, for the management and management of outbreaks. Likewise, the crew must be aware of this plan and implement it, if necessary.
  • Ship operators should provide guidance to the crew on how to recognize the signs and symptoms of COVID-19. Likewise, the crew should be reminded of the plan and procedures to follow, in case a member of the ship shows symptoms of illness.
  • Medical personnel on board ships must be up to date with the COVID-19 outbreak and its evolution, following the studies, evaluations and recommendations issued periodically by the WHO.
  • Stay informed of local advice before and during the trip.
  • Take measures to avoid direct contact with people suffering from respiratory diseases

In case of suspected infection. 

The person with mild respiratory symptoms who has not visited areas where COVID-19 has been reported, as well as people in contact with individuals with respiratory problems who have been in areas where there have been people with COVID- are listed as suspect. 19; therefore, including anyone on board who has been in contact with a suspicious case, individuals should:

  • Follow hygiene measures and isolate yourself, as far as possible.
  • Be located immediately.
  • Remain on board until you get the laboratory results of the suspected case.
  • Categorize it as contact with high-risk exposure or low-risk exposure and take the appropriate measures according to each case.
  • Additionally, the employer must provide medical care, hospitalization and medications, as established in literal “e” of article 255 of the Organic Labor Law for Male and Female Workers.

In case of death [7] . 

  • If, during the stay of a national ship in a foreign port, the death of one or more crew members occurs on board:
    • The Captain must immediately inform the local authorities and the competent Consular Authority, in order to comply with the requirements demanded by the Law, and must inform the Port Captain of the first Venezuelan port to which he arrives in writing.
  • If the death of a crew member occurs on the high seas:
    • The Captain will raise and deliver the respective death certificate, in accordance with the Law.
    • If, twenty-four (24) hours after death, the corpse has not arrived at port to bury the corpse and there are no adequate means to preserve it without harming the ship's sanitary state, the corpse will be thrown into the sea with the usual precautions and maritime ritual .
    • Only in cases of manifest decomposition of the corpse or that death is due to contagious disease and serious danger, the period of the twenty-four (24) hours indicated above may be reduced.
    • Carry out an inventory in triplicate to be signed by the Captain and two members of the crew who follow him in hierarchy. A copy of this inventory will be delivered with the respective effects, goods or values to the Port Captain of the port where the ship is located or of the next where it stops, if it is traveling. The other copy will be delivered to the relatives of the deceased if they are known. The third will be kept for the archive of the ship.
    • If the death occurs in a foreign port, the inventory together with the effects, goods or values will be delivered to the competent consular authority.
  • In the event that a passenger dies: Proceed in the manner provided for the crew.
  • In the event of the death of a crew member or passenger due to contagious disease: the effects used will proceed in the manner determined by the corresponding health regulations , and failing that, as the Captain deems appropriate.

In this regard, the Manual for the management of public health events on board ships prepared by the World Health Organization , includes a section on Application of specific sanitary measures to ensure the safe handling and transport of human remains There the referral to the International On-Board Medical Guide is ordered : completed with the description of the on-board medicine cabinet. Second edition. Geneva: World Health Organization; 1989 (GMIB), which provides guidance on how to proceed in the event of a death on board:

  • A risk assessment in relation to the cause of death should be performed to determine the appropriate public health response.
  • Take specific measures for the safe handling and transportation of human remains.
  • The repatriation of the deceased person and the safeguarding of his personal effects must be carried out in accordance with the ILO MLC, 2006.

For its part, the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control produced a technical report highlighting some considerations regarding the safe handling of bodies of deceased persons in whom COVID-19 is suspected or confirmed. In this report they point out that to date there is no evidence of transmission of COVID-19 due to the manipulation of bodies of deceased people, and that the possible risk is considered low, and may be related to:

  • Direct contact with human remains or bodily fluids in which the virus is present.
  • Direct contact with contaminated fomites.

The COVID-19 virus can survive on surfaces for 7 days, and although it is not yet proven, it is possible that it also survives on dead bodies. Therefore, unnecessary contact with bodies (both suspected and confirmed COVID-19 cases) should be minimized. In this case, they must be protected from exposure to liquids by wearing suitable PPE (the minimum requirements are gloves and a long-sleeved waterproof gown).

In summary, in Venezuela the epidemiological circumstances caused by the spread of COVID-19 do not exempt from affecting the maritime sector, more specifically the national port system and fuel dispensing companies, as they are the activities of the sector allowed by the National Executive to continue their operation during the State of Alarm.

Therefore, the recommendations of the international organizations mentioned above and those established by the INEA or any other body must be taken into account, in order to preserve the health of workers, passengers and any related person. Likewise, it is essential that the competent authorities be alerted in the event of suspected contagion and / or spread of the virus in the execution of these maritime activities so that the source of contagion is prevented and attacked in time.


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