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 ground-breaking research into seafarer fatigue.

Funded by the TK Foundation, the $1million three year project gathered a large database of new information from over 1000 seafarers, and a carried out a field study of over 100 seafarers working at sea worldwide.  The study collected data on seafarer fatigue levels, sleep patterns and psychological wellbeing. An importance element to the study was the use of Actiwatches for extended periods, which volunteers wore to register their periods of activity and sleep.

The study was led by the Warsash Maritime Academy, and the consortium also included: the Stress Research Institute in Stockholm; the Centre of Maritime Health and Society in Denmark; the University of Southampton; the Dalian Maritime University in China; and the ship managers’ trade association, InterManager.

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 to provide fatigue awareness training, fatigue prediction models, fatigue reporting systems and 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. InterManager members 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

The consortium presented the findings at an exclusive event in June, with some surprising results. An overwhelming result 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.

The study’s 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 its 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 Masters’:

  • Have more weekly work hours.
  • Feel that work in port is surprisingly less demanding than work at sea.
  • Masters are far more fatigued at the end of a contract.
  • Are slightly more overweight compared to others onboard.
  • Surprisingly, results showed that Second Officers tend to get the less sleep compared to others onboard.

Fatigue’s effect on performance

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

  • The longer seafarers are at sea, motivation decreases.
  • During interviews, seafarers pointed out that not being relieved on time is having a great effect on their motivation.
  • 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 – with 48.6% of participants felt stress was higher at the end of a voyage
  • Sleepiness levels vary little during the voyage, suggesting there are opportunities for recovery while onboard.

Fatigue 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 seafarers:

  • 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.
  • There is evidence of higher levels of both fatigue and stress in Chinese seafarers, rather than European seafarers.

What they are saying

Capt Kuba Szymanski, Secretary-General, InterManager

“I sincerely hope the results of our research will be read and acted upon by shipmanagers and ship owners who will revise their procedures and attitudes. There are number of “low hanging fruits” which, when attended to, could make a big difference. These are not necessarily costly changes – such as having seafarers relieved on time and organising work on board with humans in mind and not regulations in mind, engaging sea staff in decisions, but empowering them to take care of their lives more than it is today.”

Mike Barnett, former Project Leader for Project MARTHA and Professor of Maritime Safety at Warsash Maritime Academy

“The shipping industry has been following MARTHA’s progress with considerable interest, as the momentum for revising the guidance on fatigue has grown at the International Maritime Organization (IMO). The findings from MARTHA are anticipated to have an influence on the eventual guidelines to be published by IMO.”


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