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Seafarers' deaths

Members and guests attended at the Police Officers' Club on 11 February 1999 for the presentation given by Detlef Nielsen MNI, assistant professor, Department of Maritime Studies, Hong Kong Polytechnic, on the subject of his study into work related deaths on board Hong Kong merchant ships.

Seafaring has long been recognised as one of the more dangerous occupations as it presents workplace hazards in a combination unknown elsewhere, together with additional risks related to the seafarer's lifestyle. Most previous studies on the occupational hazards of seafarers have concentrated on nationally manned fleets operating out of northern Europe, but international shipping is now predominantly relying on internationally manned ships.

This study examined the record of the Hong Kong Marine Department and presents an analysis of fatalities in the Hong Kong fleet. One hundred and twenty three deaths were recorded in the ten years from 1986 to 1995. The victims came from 13 different countries.

No records were available for non-fatal accidents or'near misses'and the study was strictly limited to deaths taking place on board while seafarers were signed on. No data was available for work related deaths occurring after seafarers have signed off.

Maritime disaster, following an accident to the ship and, more specifically, the ship's total loss, was found to be the main cause of death of Hong Kong seafarers (56 per cent). This was also identified as a major cause of death in results available from a study conducted by the same author covering 15 other countries. The mortality rates differ widely but seafarers on Hong Kong and Singapore ships are at a higher risk of death (from all causes) than those in the 14 other fleets. This was due to the high mortality rates for maritime disasters occurring in the periods studied.

The mean age of seafarers dying from illnesses (17 percent) was 49.7 years, most of whom are said to have died from heart related illnesses. This compares with observations in other fleets; for the Polish fleet no mean age was given, but 81 per cent of all deaths due to illnesses are attributed to heart related diseases. For Hong Kong seafarers this ratio was also 80 per cent and in the British fleet that ratio was 91 per cent. Poland, with a purely nationally manned fleet and a good system of health care, has a much higher mortality rate from illnesses than the other countries except Norway. Hong Kong mortality rates due to illnesses are lower than Denmark and the UK, but are higher than the world average. The study provided no evidence to show that deaths from illness were caused by a lack of medical facilities or expertise on board ship.

The third biggest cause of death was occupational accidents (11 per cent). A review identified that deck personnel are at most risk, in particular chief officers serving on bulk carriers. This compares with studies of European seafarers which show that deck and engine departments have about an equal share of victims, and that deck ratings are exposed to twice the risk of either deck or engineer officers. Results show that poor working practices and a lack of preventive equipment leads to many of these fatalities. The risk of death due to occupational accidents ranges from between 0.9 and 10.7 deaths per 10,000 employees per year, with Hong Kong having a rate of 2.5. This is much lower than that of Greece and only about half that of Poland, Singapore and Norway; but it is still higher than that of Denmark and the UK.

Cases in the category'individual persons missing at sea' (7 per cent) may have been homicides or occupational accidents, but many are believed to have been concealed suicides. The relatively high number of confirmed suicides should give rise to concern as it gives a much higher rate of suicide than the average rate ashore. A seafarer distressed enough to consider taking his own life is certainly not able to perform his duties on board the ship proficiently. This should give a new perspective to the discussion on human error being the cause of 80 per cent of all shipping accidents; and the problem of stress should also be addressed in the IMO discussions on manning levels.

The study shows that the causes of seafarers' deaths have not changed much over the past 30 years, despite the remarkable changes in working and living conditions.

A lively and lengthy discussion followed in which concerns were raised by several persons regarding the standard of seafarers' health cheeks. Many seafarers fall ill within weeks of joining a ship. It is believed that a more stringent medical examination prior to a seafarer's appointment would relieve ship managers of expensive repatriation costs and save many lives.

Contributed by R D McNeill MNI
Seaways April 1999
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