The use of the catchphrase “the human element” to refer to seafarers has always bothered me no end. It sounds too cold. It calls to mind the periodic table of elements invented by the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev. But more important, the term degrades seafarers to the status of mere objects.

The recent case of the Romanian captain who died at sea illustrates to what extent seafarers have been objectified. Because his body was not allowed to be unloaded by 13 COVID-scared countries, it remained stuffed inside the ship’s freezer for six months.

The incident is appalling. It reminds me of the 2012 case of engineering cadet Dayra Wood, who was killed in an accident on board a Panamanian vessel. Instead of the Panama Maritime Authority being notified pronto, the ship merrily continued sailing for 17 days with Wood’s remains inside the ship’s refrigerator.

The term degrades seafarers to the status of mere objects.

More than the dead, it’s the living who have to contend with being treated like objects. For all the praises heaped upon them, seafarers are just cogs in the wheel. They can be replaced or discarded as one would the parts of a machine. Just look at the many incidents in which crews are abandoned by shipwowners, or left stranded at sea during the pandemic because those concerned are not acting quickly enough to repatriate them.

Life is hard enough for seafarers. Why make matters worse by using language that lessens their humanity?

The IMO website states: “The human element is recognized as a key element of the safety of life on board ships and a contributing factor to most of the casualties in the shipping sector. Maritime safety and safety of navigation can be enhanced by strengthening the focus on the human element.”

Tell that to the dead seafarers in ship’s refrigerators.

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