B.1.4.1 Introduction

The crews of vessels working on inland waterways have many of the same duties as those onboard seagoing shipping, but there are some important differences. Navigation is in restricted and often congested waters. Ships are usually smaller and with lower freeboards and there is frequently a need to moor temporarily while passing through locks. Thus, the seafaring skills and capabilities, including health related ones, needed are similar to those for a seagoing ship. However, land and shore-based health care facilities are generally close at hand in the event of an emergency. This means that fitness to work as crew on an inland waterway vessel is concerned with task related capabilities rather than the risks of illness requiring a medical consultation developing while on board.

B.1.4.2 Types of inland waterway

  1. Rivers have been used for communication and transport since prehistoric times, the Nile in Egypt being a prime example. The characteristics of the river determined vessel design and operation. Even in the ancient world rivers were improved by dredging and by the provision of weirs and early forms of lock.
  2. Similarly large lakes, such as those of Africa and North America have long been highways for communication as well as fishing grounds.
  3. Early canals were cut in Roman times and in ancient China to supplement and connect rivers. There were major developments in canal building in Europe during the 17th and 18th Centuries and in North America a bit later. Locks were perfected and horse haulage for boats adopted until replaced by mechanical propulsion.
  4. Both canals and rivers served seaports, situated on estuaries or bays. Often such estuaries and other tidal inlets such as fjords were served by boats and ferries that never went on to the open seas.

Many inland waterways are within a single national jurisdiction and national requirements for navigation, including those for crew competence and fitness, are the norm.  Sometimes, particularly for estuaries, fjords and tidal rivers where seagoing vessels are also present, the same standards as those for international maritime transport are applied. Where rivers, lakes or canals also cross-national boundaries, such as the Rhine in Europe, international agreements on navigation standards were sometimes developed at an early date.

B.1.4.3 Transnational waterways


The Central Commission (for the Rhine) (CCNR) was formally constituted in 1815. It was based on two key principles: the creation of an international river organisation, and the establishment of the principle of the freedom of navigation.

The Central Commission resumed its work after the Second World War in 1945, with American, Belgian, British, French, Dutch and Swiss delegations.

The German delegation did not resume its place until 1950. The Central Commission contributed to the return of activity to the Rhine corridor. Several committees were set up by the Central Commission, which also established a “boatman’s passport” and a rationing card.

The Commission also concerned itself with simplifying Customs formalities. It intervened with the military authorities for the removal of military bridges that were hindering navigation. Collaboration with other international organisations developed, particularly with the High Authority of the European Coal and Steel Community and subsequently with the European Commission. Specific agreements were concluded regarding the working conditions, social security arrangements, competencies and medical fitness for boatmen on the Rhine.  The principles and the rules governing navigation on the Rhine have been taken up and extended to inland navigation throughout Europe. The Rhine is now an integral part of the European network of inland waterways, but it remains the most active and the most highly evolved section. The Central Commission is working increasingly on matters that concern not only the Rhine but also inland navigation in Europe as a whole. Cooperation with the European Union is increasingly close. The United Kingdom withdrew in 1993, but the Central Commission welcomes many “observer States”, mainly from the Danube basin.

All Member States of the European Union now have the same conditions of access to the Rhine as the CCNR members. To this end, the CCNR and the European Community have adopted identical regulations defining the vessels belonging to Rhine navigation or to Community navigation.

The European committee for drawing up standards for inland navigation (CESNI)

  • adopts technical standards in various fields, about vessels, information technology and crew to which the respective regulations at the European and international level, including the European Union and the CCNR, will refer with a view to their application;
  • deliberates on the uniform interpretation and application of the said standards, on the method for applying and implementing the corresponding procedures, on procedures for exchanging information, and on the supervisory mechanisms among the Member States;
  • deliberates on derogations and equivalences of technical requirements for a specific craft;
  • deliberates on priority topics regarding safety of navigation, protection of the environment, and other areas of inland navigation.


Inland navigation is important in Egypt (Nile), West and Central Africa (Congo).  There is international collaboration in relation to some inland waterways in Francophone Africa. This is part of wider collaborative initiatives.  Relevant aspects of this collaboration are:

  • Assistance to states on the survey of boats;
  • Control the implementation of inland navigation codes (registration, signaling, issuance of navigability and navigation permits, etc.);
  • Developing common regulations to ensure safety;
  • Defining and enforcing measures to reduce accidents;
  • Coordinating development and maintenance work;
  • Seeking funding for the acquisition and management of hydrological and hydrographic data;
  • Monitoring, in collaboration with national institutions, the execution of network maintenance works.

With more than one-third of the rail network not fully operational and very few roads, the complex network of waterways is critical for the local and regional economies. A large part of the Congo Basin regions is inaccessible by means other than inland navigation. Moreover, despite the slow pace, the low cost of water transport makes them the main mode of transport for goods and people.  Most of the goods on the river are transported on convoys consisting of a push boat and several barges (with a capacity of 500 to 2,000 tons).

Most captains navigate without any navigation documents and do not use other navigational markers, apart from their knowledge of the river and a handwritten list that records distances between villages.  Work to revise, update and better specify the general cartography and dangers of navigable waterways is in progress led by the Commission for the Congo Basin (CICOS).

In addition, in collaboration with the relevant services of its Member States, it is developing practical databases on accident and incident statistics, flow of goods, fleet registers, a port directory and a hydrological information system. No information is available on provisions concerning the regulation of working conditions, social security, crew competence and fitness assessment.


Many of the waterways, such as inshore canals and major river systems like the Mississippi are entirely under the jurisdiction of the USA. Navigation in the Great Lakes and the St Lawrence Seaway is a shared responsibility of USA and Canada. Some of the vessels plying on these waterways are very large and in addition tugs move large chains of barges carrying bulk liquid and solid cargoes over long distances.  Ocean going vessels have access to the Great Lakes and are subject to the same international requirements as in international waters. However, there are a wide range of US and Canadian regulations that also need to be observed. These concern pilotage for all non-North American vessels and port and harbour clearance rules, which differ according to the jurisdiction of each port. Also, the Seaway and Great Lakes are, to an extent seasonal navigations as large parts are ice-bound in winter.


River and canal transport elsewhere is, with few exceptions such as the Mekong in south-east Asia, within single national jurisdictions. Important waterways include the Amazon and River Plate in South America and the major rivers of China and India. National codes for such waterways vary in detail, broadly mirroring those for other groups of workers in the country, but sometimes with additional provisions to assure fitness to work or to provide medical care when away from home.

B.1.4.4 Working and living on board

The living conditions on board differ with size of vessel, shipping company, region and local level of economic development and crew expectations. On small vessels accommodation may be limited to cramped sleeping quarters, a single multi-purpose mess room and a galley.  Food may be of poor quality and hygiene, especially for food storage and preparation, can be hard to maintain in such situations, posing risks to crew health. This is especially the case on owner managed vessels, as those belonging to larger fleets may well have to comply with company standards. This may also apply to personal safety equipment, such as fire extinguishers, fire suits, breathing equipment, first aid kit, etc.

Welfare arrangements for inland waterway crews are limited and contact with home is either done using mobile phones, as in African countries, or by internet where there is 4G coverage.

B.1.4.5 Medical aspects

Many of the health risks are similar to those for other seafarers. In particular injuries associated with mooring and rope handling are frequent. Additional risks do occur in tropical countries, on fresh waters close to shore people are much more exposed to insect vectors, which can transmit malaria and other infections. Food may be purchased locally with risks, especially in South America and Africa, from adulteration, spoilage, bacterial infections and parasitic diseases. Seasonal risk factors are also important. Prolonged high humidity during the monsoon increases the likelihood of skin infections, both primary and secondary to injuries. Drowning is also an ever-present risk.

In developed economies, medical fitness criteria are specified, for instance for those working in the Rhine/Danube waterways. These are primarily concerned with safe navigation, but also provide an opportunity to review health with crew members and to offer vaccinations. Additional requirements may be in place where cargoes pose health risks.

Emergency medical care may be required, either within the crew-member’s home country but distant from their residence or in another jurisdiction. This may be, as in Europe, covered by international agreements. Care on board is usually limited to first aid provisions. In less developed countries medical emergency arrangements for crewmembers are limited and in line with local health care provisions

B.1.4.6 Passenger vessels on inland waterways

Some waterway systems such as the Rhine/Danube, the Russian waterways and the Nile have dedicated vessels accommodating cruise passengers. As with cargo transport the requirements for crew competence and fitness are variable. Passengers themselves may have to make a declaration about health before travelling but are expected to carry their own insurance to cover medical emergencies.

A few large waterways such as the St Lawrence and the Amazon are on cruise liner itineraries as are many estuaries leading to port cities. The same medical arrangements to those on the high seas apply, but in tropical waters there may be additional risks from insect vectors of disease.