MARTHA: is length of time at sea to blame for seafarer fatigue?

Building on its predecessor, Project HORIZON which identified serious concerns with the 6/6 shift pattern where 50% of participants fell asleep during their shifts, Project MARTHA was launched in 2013 to address this issue and now reports groundbreaking research into seafarer fatigue.

It was led by Warsash Maritime Academy at Southampton Solent University; the consortium includes the Stress Research Institute in Stockholm; the Centre of Maritime Health and Society in Esbjerg, Denmark; the University of Southampton; and the Dalian Maritime University in China. InterManager is also a partner, and helped the consortium to find volunteer shipping companies within its membership to participate in the project.

What must be made clear is the difference between fatigue and sleepiness. This is an important distinction Project MARTHA makes, as the effects of fatigues can result in sleepiness.

Fatigue: a subjective feeling of tiredness which is distinct from weakness, and has a gradual onset.

Sleepiness: the state of being sleepy


Project MARTHA’s aim was to put together a Fatigue Risk Management System (FRMS) and will provide fatigue awareness training, fatigue prediction models, fatigue reporting systems and will advise on corrective actions to take to minimise/eradicate fatigue incidents.

To take account of cultural differences in crew working patterns, Project MARTHA operated two projects simultaneously in both Europe and China. Several InterManager companies took part in the project by allowing their crew to report findings and wear Actiwatch monitors.

Project MARTHA conducted two linked studies involving Masters of vessels and their crews. The first study included three to four months of observation on the longer-term psycho-social issues affecting seafarer fatigue, with volunteer crew members rating their fatigue and stress levels and wearing Actiwatches periodically to record their activity levels.

The second study evaluated the effectiveness of FRMS through a shipboard study.

The Results

Researchers presented the findings at an exclusive event in June, with some surprising results. An overwhelming element of this project was the effect of fatigue on Master’s versus other crew and what consequences this could have on the vessel as a whole.

Project MARTHA central purpose was to examine the factors which contribute to fatigue. Over the course of the project, these factors were found to include: job security; environmental factors; job demands; sleep quality; irregular work hours; the amount of rest hours; and new regulations which could place more requirements on seafarers.

Fatigue and the effect on a Masters

A Master’s place on a ship is central to the vessel’s performance, a claim which many would agree with. The project confirmed this theory and found a number of reasons for how a Master’s role differed from that of other crew members, including that Master’s:

  • Have more weekly work hours.
  • Feel that work in port is less demanding than work at sea.
  • Masters are slightly more stressed at the end of a voyage.
  • More alert in the mornings compared to at night.
  • After a voyage, Master’s felt overwhelmingly fatigued.
  • Are slightly more overweight compared to others onboard.
  • Master’s and Watch Keepers get less sleep than other ranks, because of the nature of importance of their role onboard.

Fatigue’s effect on performance

The performance of seafarers onboard is paramount to how a vessel can be efficient, streamlined and operational. The project found:

  • The longer seafarers are at sea, motivation decreases.
  • Both fatigue and stress levels are perceived as worse at the end of a voyage rather than the beginning by most crew, with some seafarers saying that port work is more demanding than work at sea.
  • Sleepiness levels vary little during the voyage, suggesting there are opportunities for recovery while onboard.
  • 6% of participants felt stress was higher at the end of a voyage

Fatigues and the cultural perspective

The cultural difference Project MARTHA sought to examine threw up some interesting results and a clear divide between European and Chinese:

  • European seafarers worked fewer hours than their Chinese colleagues.
  • Chinese seafarers on dry bulk carriers worked an average of 15.11 hours a day compared to European seafarers who worked an average 10.23 hours a day.
  • Seafarers from Chinese and European-managed companies perceive the casual factors of fatigue differently.
  • There is evidence of higher levels of both fatigue and stress in Chinese seafarers, rather than European seafarers.

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