In the aftermath of what might be the worst ever case of multiple fatalities from suspected mass food poisoning of the crew of the bulk carrier Wu Zhou 8, resulting in 13 crew deaths and eight crew hospitalised, attention turns urgently to the safety of food consumed by seafarers on board, to training in safe food preparation and to the important provisions of the Maritime Labour Convention and the crucial role of the Casualty Investigation Code.
“This is a tragic incident but not an isolated incident”, says David Heindel, ITF Seafarers’ Section Chair. “Cases of food poisoning amongst crew and sometimes passengers have been randomly reported over the years. It is difficult to estimate the scale of such incidents but if this crew has been poisoned by their food, then it is not difficult to emphasise how vital it is for the health and wellbeing of seafarers that their food and drinking water is safe and that crews receive a high level of catering and nutrition training to avoid the risk of such incidents.”
Safe and hygienic food, water and food preparation on board has been an historic concern of the International Labour Organization and is an integral part of the MLC. Regulation 3.2 of the MLC has the purpose “To ensure that seafarers have access to good quality food and drinking water provided under regulated hygienic conditions”. At the most recent meeting of the Special Tripartite Committee of the MLC, amendments were adopted to strengthen the right of seafarers to be provided food and drinking water suitable in respect of quantity, nutritional value, quality and variety “free of charge during the period of engagement” and that frequent documented inspections be carried out on board ships with respect to supplies of food and drinking water “in relation to their quantity, nutritional value, quality and variety”.
The tragedy also shines the light on the role of marine casualty investigations. The mandatory requirement on States to conduct an investigation into every very serious marine casualty is well established in the Casualty Investigation Code.
“We believe that the deaths of these seafarers is a very serious marine casualty and that an investigation must be conducted and the results of the investigation must be published to the public and the shipping industry in a timely fashion”, says Jacqueline Smith, Maritime Coordinator of the ITF. “There can then be remedial measures to enhance the safety of seafarers at sea”, she added.
The recent failure of IMO member States to amend the Casualty Investigation Code to mandate a time limit for completion of casualty investigations and publication of their reports could have been a missed opportunity to implement more fully the intentions of the Code.
“It is ever more important that resources are directed to casualty investigations so that lessons can be learned, lives can be saved and the environment can be better protected”, says Deirdre Fitzpatrick, Executive Director of SRI. “In conducting investigations, it is essential also that all seafarers are treated fairly in line with the IMO/ILO Guidelines on the fair treatment of seafarers”.