After graduating from seafarers’ college in Skärhamn, John Lund started working at sea in 2008. He was with ACL and worked on icebreakers, but also worked as repairman and welding foreman in the shipbuilding industry. He was aware that there were harmful substances in his work environment, so a few years ago he decided to ask the master of the icebreaker he was working on to refer him for a lung examination.
“Welders working at shipyards and other companies ashore have routine lung examinations every two years, but this is not done in shipping. You should really do it to make sure everything is good here and now,” says John Lund.
Although he was aware that he had been exposed to health risks at work, he was surprised when the occupational health service suspected that he had asthma. He had not noticed any specific health problems until then, but soon he began to realize how bad he was feeling. He was given medication for asthma which he took regularly, but when he had still not completely recovered after two years, he was referred to the COPD centre at Sahlgrenska Hospital in Gothenburg. A detailed investigation showed that he was suffering from chronic asthma and had 30 per cent less lung capacity than normal. The news came as a total surprise to John Lund, who was only 30 at the time.
“I was like, ’what the hell is this’ and thought it would go over. Just take the medicine and it will get better. This can be fixed. But it didn’t work,” said John in an interview with the Sjömannen magazine, which was the first to report on his health problems.
Exposure to harmful substances is not always very easy to avoid.
His condition has been classified as an occupational injury and it was established that exposure to isocyanates caused his lung problems. Isocyanates are found in paints, adhesives and sealants, and exposure can take place when working with two-component paint, for example. Harmful substances may also be released during hot work, such as welding, when there is a risk of inhaling toxic particles. John Lund says that he has worked in environments with isocyanates on and off during his years in shipping.
“The first three years after marine high school, I worked as a sailor and painted a lot. I have worked with welding in the shipbuilding industry and as a repairman on board.
Exposure to harmful substances is not always very easy to avoid,” he says.
“In a shipyard a number of years ago, I was working as a mechanic doing maintenance on the main engine. At the same time, they were spray-painting outside right next to the air intake, so the vapours were blown straight down to us. I went and told the chief engineer, who immediately closed the air intake. Then we had to put up with the heat instead, but it was better than breathing in paint vapours.”
In the last years he was working at sea, after his lung examination, John became hypersensitive to harmful chemicals. He explains that he felt bad whenever others were working with isocyanates and he did his best to avoid contact with the harmful products.
“Once when I was working at Atle, they were using fillers in the machine room when I went down there. I felt the effect straight away and was given a driving assignment in town until they were finished. It was the same thing if someone was working with two-component paint, I would find it difficult to breathe and had to leave.”
During his first few years on board, John thought that people were generally careless about protective equipment and it was not always available for everyone. Over time, things got better.
“When I started working at sea, there wasn’t much protective equipment around, and there was also a macho culture so not everyone would use it even if it was available. In 2015 I started work on icebreakers and there things were comparatively good, but there were no welding masks with active ventilation so I had to fix one myself. Last summer I went back and had a temporary job as a repairman on icebreakers and things were a lot better. Everyone who was welding had proper masks and used protective equipment.”
Exposure to isocyanates can cause a range of symptoms such as blocked nose, runny nose, recurrent cough, eye irritation and headaches, as well as persistent health problems like those John has suffered from. Nowadays it is not only isocyanates that make his body react, but other substances too.
“If I go into a dusty environment without respiratory equipment, I get a blocked nose and it becomes difficult to breathe. I’m not supposed to be in dirty environments, quite simply. When it is cold outside, I have to try not to take cold air deep into my lungs because it impairs their capacity,” he says.
The lung problems mean that he can no longer work as a repairman on board and he is now retraining to become a mechanical engineer.
“I try to follow the doctors’ advice, but it’s a real drag not being able to work as a repairman anymore. I miss being at sea – or rather, I’m tired of being home all the time.
But you can’t just walk around and sulk about it. I try to accept the situation,” says John Lund.
One thing that makes him feel better is physical exercise, which he tries to do regularly.
“I have to make sure I do cardio training for the rest of my life, which is not a bad thing, and I feel a lot better when I get up and move. I have worked with people who were not very healthy when they retired, and you don’t want to do that. But things go slowly. I’m not exactly running marathons.”