Fighting fatigue one sleep at a time

01 Jun 2022 The Navigator

Seafarers work in a heavily regulated industry. Like many other dedicated professionals out there, they face a workload that is physically and mentally challenging. Prolonged stress, working long hours in an isolated place and not finding enough time to sleep can all lead to immense fatigue. The good news is that there is plenty that can be done to help combat stress and promote healthy, restorative sleep. Captain James Foong FNI explains further

Fatigue can be described as a drowsy state of deprived sleep and extreme tiredness. Seafarers who are fatigued may experience diminishing cognitive ability, and a loss of interest in their work, which could endanger themselves, their colleagues, the ship they are operating, and the wider marine environment. Here are a few reasons why a seafarer might be prone to fatigue:

In the past, a ship’s captain had pretty much one job to do – to manoeuvre the vessel from port A to B. However, things have changed, thanks in no small part to the increase in telecommunication devices available. Nowadays, captains and their bridge teams must answer emails, sort out essential documentation and attend to overwhelming administrative work, regardless of time zones or passage scheduling. Meanwhile, the technical side of actually operating the ship still requires their full attention. Often, an officer can only take on the extra administrative work required of them during their ‘rest’ time.

According to a survey carried out by Cardiff University, officers tend to underreport their working time on timesheets to comply with audits and inspections (Seafarer fatigue: The Cardiff Research Programme). Almost 50% of seafarers reported that their working hours are at least 85 hours or more. When short-staffed, seafarers can legally work up to 91 to 98 hours per week, which is double the maximum number of working hours regulated by the International Labour Organization (ILO) for shore workers.

Watch systems
Deck officers can traditionally work a maximum of 12 hours on watch a day to comply with STCW. This schedule means officers get multiple intervals of break throughout a day. However, in many cases, navigating officers work overtime when there are no extra crew members to act as back-up. Officers in this situation may only manage three or four hours of sleep after factoring in overtime and the need to eat and take a shower before getting ready for their next shift.

Studies have shown disruptive sleep-wake cycles like this are unlikely to be sustainable for an extended period. The added stress they produce can lead to reduced reaction times, severe mental health concerns, and increased risk of illness.

Environmental factors
Working at sea is remote by nature. The isolated working environment onboard ship can impose additional mental stress on seafarers who find it hard to deal with such remoteness. Additionally, issues such as severe ship motions during heavy weather; incessant chatter over the walkie-talkie and vibrations from the vessel being loaded or unloaded can add extra levels of physical discomfort that also affect a seafarer’s mood and levels of fatigue.

So, what can be managed onboard to ensure seafarers are physically and mentally fit and protected as much as possible from the negative consequences of fatigue?

Suitable surroundings
Soundproof insulation is a highly effective way to reduce unwanted sound traveling into the cabins and disrupting sleep. Standard fiberglass composite and dampening acoustic sealant both offer good soundproofing properties to muffle airborne and impact noise.

Comfortable, ergonomic furniture can also help people relax during rest times and ease any aches and pains in the body. When a ship is first designed, companies should be encouraged to work with sleep experts to ensure crew accommodation can be as relaxing and effective in minimising noise as possible.

Reduce sleep debt
It’s normal for seafarers to build up some form of ‘sleep debt’ with irregular work hours, night shifts and/or difficulty getting at least six hours of sleep consistently. Therefore, proper planning of sleeping hours around other demands on time (e.g. eating and showering) is key. The sleeping environment should be dark, quiet, and well-ventilated with a decent mattress to allow easier transition into the deep sleep phase. In addition, scheduling strategic nap times can help seafarers maintain their mental and physical health. For example, this could be achieved during breaks or between changes in activities.

Competent crewing
On top of that, sufficient crewing of the ship is mandatory to ensure each officer has enough time to rest properly after each watch-keeping cycle. It is helpful for higherranking officers to clarify their job scope before spending too long on administrative work and documentation that could be carried out by someone else with space in their schedule. Administration can often be better managed by a well-trained executive officer who could also take on safety inspections and audits.

Diet, exercise and lifestyle
Seafarers must establish and maintain healthy habits if they want to enjoy a better lifestyle. Choose food that offers a good balance of macronutrients to help keep fatigue at bay. Regular exercise can help prevent work-related illnesses and improve overall health and wellbeing. Another way to keep spirits high and protect people’s wellbeing onboard ship is to develop a good range of social activities to encourage team cohesiveness, boost morale and improve cooperation. Setting up a job rotation scheme is helpful too, as changing jobs can dispel feelings of monotony and prevent seafarers from growing bored of repetitive tasks.

Crew retention
It can be extremely tiring for experienced crew members to have to frequently train new seafarers if there is a high turnover of staff onboard ship. Finding ways to retain quality people can therefore greatly assist in reducing overall fatigue levels within the team. Establishing an open working culture where people can feel confident about raising concerns can help with this, along with excellent career opportunities, fair remuneration packages, and support with mental health and personal development.

Connecting with the ‘outside world’
Ultimately, onboard telecommunication facilities must be up-to-date to keep seafarers in touch with the outside world. People working in an isolated environment are usually extremely keen to connect to others and have their voices heard. Tiredness and fatigue is not just about not getting enough sleep. It can be exacerbated by a lack of contact with home, pressures around shore leave and inadequate attention to people’s psychological needs. We must acknowledge the serious threats posed by fatigue and find workable solutions for mitigating against these risks. The physical and mental wellbeing of seafarers needs to be prioritised. To those active seafarers out there who are reading this article, I wish you all the best in your career and sincerely thank you for your contribution to the maritime industry. Safe seas and clear horizons always.