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Seafarer health: when rights can't be equal

Seafarer health: when rights can't be equal
31 October 2022

Despite anti-discrimination legislation in the UK, a change in your health status may mean that you no longer have the same rights as a fully fit person to work at sea. But all is not necessarily lost, as Deborah McPherson and Sarah Robinson explain

The Equality Act 2010 outlaws discrimination against UK workers on the grounds of their race, gender, sexual orientation and a number of other 'protected characteristics'. This anti-discrimination legislation applies to seafarers on UK ships, except in one particular aspect: disability.

For most shore jobs in the UK, you must not be denied employment on the grounds of a disability or long-term health condition. This doesn't mean you'll get or keep every job you apply for, but you have to be given a fair hearing and 'reasonable adjustments'.

However, at sea, the legislation preventing discrimination on health grounds can't apply, because to take up a position onboard ship, you must have a medical assessment and meet statutory medical standards. This exemption from the anti-discrimination legislation is found in Section 60 of the Act, and also applies to certain shore jobs where a level of fitness is required for safety reasons.

Section 60 means, for example, that wheelchair or crutch users don't have the right to work onboard ship. Until fairly recently, you would also have been ruled out if you had a long-term health condition such as diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis, but the maritime authorities now consider whether seafarers with health conditions might be able to work onboard under certain circumstances.

Here are some examples of how the UK Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA) considers particular health conditions on a case-by-case risk assessment basis. The assessments are carried out by Approved Doctors – physicians approved by the MCA to carry out examinations for the fitness certificates known as ENG1.