Like many other industries, the maritime industry continuously faces the problem of fatigue. The reliance on employees to be mentally and physically alert for optimum performance and effectiveness over a prolonged period of time is the cause of this dilemma. The manufacturing and processing industry, the construction industry, public health sector and even the aviation industry all have problems with fatigue in the work place.
Fatigue is the state of mental and physical exhaustion. It goes beyond feeling tired or drowsy and reduces one’s ability to perform safely and effectively in the workplace. Fatigue can be classified as either acute or chronic. Acute fatigue is the result of short term sleep loss and periods of heavy physical and mental work. The effects are relatively short and can be reversed by proper sleeping habits and rest. Chronic fatigue syndrome is a disorder classified by extreme tiredness. It may worsen with strenuous work and activity and is not improved with sufficient sleep or rest. The cause of this disorder is still unknown.
The maritime industry operates continuously, i.e., on a 24 hours-7 days a week schedule. This extremely competitive environment and industry leads to vessel operators reducing crew sizes seeking out economic efficiencies.
Fatigue is not a new issue in the maritime industry. In fact many spills, collisions and groundings occur as a result of human error by fatigue. Regulatory bodies like IMO (International Maritime Organisation ) and ILO (International Labour Organisation) have rules and regulations in place. The Seafarers Hours of Work and Manning of Ships Convention 1996 Article 5 states “the maximum hours of work shall not exceed 14 hours in any 24 hour period and 72 hours in any 7 day period”. The current provisions in STCW (The International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watch keeping for Seafarers) makes it acceptable for a seafarer to work 91 hours a week with a minimum of 10 hours rest in any 24 hours period and 77 hours of rest in any 7 day period.
Whether seafarers work on luxury cruise ships or commercial vessels the average work day exceeds 12 hours and for some it can be as long as 16 hours.
Fatigue levels are difficult to measure and quantify. This creates the dilemma of isolating it to accidents and injuries. Each individual can be affected differently while still increasing their exposure to the hazards. Research has shown that long hours awake are similar to blood alcohol levels. One study reports that 17 hours without sleep is equivalent to a blood alcohol content of 0.05 which is enough for mild impairment.
Fatigue is not only caused by sleep deprivation or insufficient rest. In fact there are several inter-related factors contributing to the increase risk of fatigue. The duration of a worker’s rest and sleep is key. Consideration should also be place on the quality of sleep the individual is getting and the length of time spent awake or since the last rest. The muscles can recover with rest but the brain can only recover with continuous undisturbed sleep.
Another major factor is the work schedule, which can directly affect the amount of sleep a worker gets. The work schedule for employees depends on shift work, night shifts, amount of hours worked per day or shift and break intervals during work. The risk of fatigue increases when early shifts finish late, or when employees take on double shifts and overtime. Night shift workers and crews are at greater risk since the body is biologically programmed to sleep at night.
The nature of the job and job demands can also increase risk of fatigue. The maritime industry demands seafarers to carry out monotonous work as well as continuous periods of concentration and for some a greater physical effort. This can leave seafarers and mentally and physically exhausted and increase the risk of fatigue.
Onboard the ship, conditions can be uncomfortable and even described as harsh. Exposure to heat or cold, vibration and noise in the work environment can exhaust seafarers quicker.
Lastly, non-work related factors can contribute to fatigue as well. The risk is increased with family responsibilities, lifestyle choices, health issues and even lengthy travel and commute between their home and work place.
It is important that employers and companies in the industry identify the factors that may contribute and increases the risk of fatigue. Consultation sessions with workers and crews should be done and include supervisors, managers and safety committees. The consultation sessions focus should be on the work schedules and workloads as well as work related travel.
Emphasis should be placed on examining the systems of work and the work practices. This includes a work culture where long hours and overtime is the norm as well as the workers influence on the hours of work. Responsible persons and crewing staff can examine worker records such as sign in/out sheets and shift changeovers. This will help determine excessive hours worked as well as duration of regular working hours.
Lastly a review of workplace incident data and human resource data will give details on the incidents and absenteeism due to illness or unplanned events. This identifies the likelihood of contributing to incidents and those who are injured or ill being at risk of becoming fatigue.
Fatigue should be treated like any other risk in the workplace, first try to eliminate it if reasonably practicable and if this is not possible then reduce and control it. Here is the tricky part, as mentioned most of the contributing factors are inter-related and therefore it will take a combination of specific control measures to minimise the risk.
Vessel owners and operators can start by developing a working hours policy. This will address daily work hours, maximum average weekly hours and total hours. Excessive work hours can be managed and limited through procedures which require minimum rest periods for longer shifts. Future schedules should be considered when approving leave and shift swaps and also managed absenteeism which will cause change in workloads.
Most companies fall short in having the necessary procedures to manage unplanned leaves, emergencies and shift swapping. In these situations having a plan for on called workers can reduce workload for employees and therefore reduce the risk of fatigue.
Some jobs and task that may be considered high risk or demand critical safety work can be scheduled outside the low body clock period i.e. nearing the end or start of shifts. This is directly related to the structuring and design of shift rosters, the highest work demand is at the middle of the shift and decreasing to the end of the shift.
When creating shift rosters companies should avoid starting morning shifts before 6 am and keep sequential night shifts to a minimum. The shift and night workers should be allocated consecutive days off allowing at least 2 nights for sleep.
Workers with jobs that demand a greater physical effort should be encourage to report and share concerns they may have on work-related fatigue. Job rotation will also help limit the build up of mental and physical fatigue.
Companies may think they do not have a great amount of control for environmental conditions. While this is partly true in the case of extreme temperature and weather conditions at sea. Employers can implement control measures like proper heating or cooling, ventilation and low vibration shields. It is the responsibility of the employer to provide adequate rest facilitates or areas for meals breaks and rehydrating. Lastly vessel operators and other maritime companies should avoid work arrangements using incentives and incentive programmes for excessive or extra hours.
There is no one simple solution for the management of fatigue. Just as there are multiple factors contributing to the increase risk of fatigue the approach must come from different angles. Fatigue can be managed in the Maritime Industry and the risk of fatigue can be reduced through a combined effort of both the company and the employees. With an effective plan within the safety management system and the supporting policies and leadership, maritime companies can reduce fatigue related incidents, near misses and fatalities.