Fatigue: Let’s do something about it

Who remembers the Horizon Project — the research undertaken by Warsash, with Swedish partners, to demonstrate that fatigue was not just a figment of seafarers’ imagination?

With volunteers operating ships in real time on simulators, this showed the results of fatigue in Technicolor; performance falling off with the onset of exhaustion, people dropping off in front of the observer’s eyes.

It also demonstrated beyond any doubt the fact that people operating ships on a six hours on, six off watchkeeping regime were appreciably more fatigued, over time, than those on a more generous four on, eight off arrangement.

Did we see a sudden rush to put extra officers on board the undermanned vessels, to permit their officers at to stay legal under the Safety of Life at Sea Convention and the Maritime Labour Convention? Did this dangerous way of ship operating get banned by the International Maritime Organization, as a result of the convincing evidence of Horizon, validating the evidence provided by all those accident investigators sifting through the aftermath of very many collisions and groundings involving exhausted people?

Not a bit of it, alas. Any changes are fiercely resisted by the flag states which have large fleets of ships operated in this manner. Change will come only as a result of something really horrific, such as a coastal tanker, driven by some spaced out watchkeeper, tee-boning a cruise ship and killing enormous numbers of people.

Or perhaps more unlikely, the return from operating shortsea ships (in competition with road haulage) will mysteriously improve, so that they do not have to be crewed by one man and a dog, or people from the poorest nations on earth.

But we were back at Warsash last month to hear about the latest research in this important area, with the conclusion of the follow-up “Martha” research project, once again, involving an international team and data from more than 1,000 volunteers. Here the researchers were looking at the long-term effects of fatigue, possible effects on health and how fatigue affected different members of a ship’s crew.

Scientific approach

Horizon was undertaken using simulators. Martha involved ships and crews doing their normal work at sea and in port. Two European companies operating fleets of large deepsea containerships and small tankers in the shortsea trades were partners in the study, along with two Chinese state shipping companies, operating 400 bulkers and 40 tankers respectively. These four operators employed the “subjects”. Questionnaires, “sleep diaries” and interviews were used to gather data, along with the use of “actigraphs” — wrist-worn monitors which would verify the reality of estimations of sleep and activity.

If you have served at sea, there may have been few surprises in the findings of  the researchers, although it was interesting to see a more scientific approach to the feelings and perceptions that one has as a voyage progresses.

Fatigue was identified as a gradual “draining of the batteries” as opposed to “just” sleepiness, which can be easily recovered by getting a period of adequate rest. The research was able to identify contributors to fatigue and stress, such as fears about job security or the environment on board ship. Prolonged and irregular working hours, the pressures of port visits, with their endless inspections, paperwork and the regulatory burdens, concern about the unfamiliarity of a new ship or worries about the professionalism of other crew members are all matters that provoke fatigue and stress.

Importantly, fatigue was found to be cumulative as the voyage progressed, worse at the end of the voyage where it was accompanied by reduced levels of motivation. High levels of sleeplessness tended to persist and some officers in particular, such as the officer who kept the midnight to four watch and always suffered broken sleep, were more fatigued than others.

Perhaps most worrying was the parallel work being done on the long-term wellbeing of seafarers, where, in addition to safety consequences, there are real concerns about chronic health effects, with 50% of seafarers suffering from hypertension — even young ones — and the prevalence of obesity from an increasingly sedentary lifestyle with a lack of exercise, along with cardio-vascular problems.

Issues of nutrition and diet were noted, sometimes with a cultural influence, as seafarers changed their diet to one which was markedly unsuitable to their metabolism. Philippine seafarers, for instance, who traditionally ate a healthy diet, have cultivated a liking for large quantities of chips. Seafarers, confided a doctor I spoke to at the coffee break, were dying too often and far too early. I bet this is not a fact that was on offer the previous weekend, at the Day of the Seafarer Career Fair!

There is no doubt whatever that fatigue and stress cause a deterioration of both attention and visual cognition. We go berserk trying to prevent seafarers enjoying a beer after work (making their lives arguably more stressed) but a chief officer and master on duty for 18 hours non-stop — unexceptionable — are probably operating as if they were at twice the alcohol driving limits.

Let’s hope Martha shows her considerable weight of evidence where it matters, such as at the IMO. This is important research, and cannot be regarded in isolation, but needs to be added to all the evidence from casualties and the effects on long-term health.

It surely bears on recruitment and retention and all those extra officers we are supposed to find in the next 10 years. It ought to influence the design of ships and their manning levels. Whether it will, of course, will depend on a large number of commercial factors. The portents are not altogether promising.

 

See more maritime stories at www.lloydslist.com

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