WATCHOUT Tired of talking about fatigue?
There are many – far too many – accidents where fatigue is cited as a contributing cause. So what lessons should the industry be learning as a whole to tackle ongoing issues of crew fatigue? If the industry wishes to retain experienced workers in safe conditions, then the time for action from ship owners and operators is now, writes Seafarers Hospital Society CEO Sandra Welch
In an occupation that can be stressful and dangerous, fatigue onboard ship amplifies the chances of a range of health issues occurring, from depression to obesity. We need a culture of care among all companies involved to help alleviate fatigue and boost wellbeing among seafarers.
As part of our landmark study on seafarer health initiatives, conducted with Yale University, SHS hosted a series of roundtable discussions with ship owners, operators and other shipping stakeholders to assess achievable solutions to holistically address seafarer welfare.
Low hanging fruit
Based on research conducted for the metastudy, report author Dr Martin Slade offered several recommendations on how crew can reduce fatigue and how companies can assist in this, including adopting a holistic approach to the plight of seafarers and ensuring working routines are fixed so crew can settle into a schedule.
Gruelling watch schedules need to be addressed, such as the exhausting watchkeeping routine of ‘six on, six off’, which often prevents crew from ever getting an effective seven hours of sleep.
Increasing bureaucracy must be resolved as ship management systems become more complex and unmanageable, contributing to cognitive overload. Automation or removal of tasks to colleagues onshore could also help. Masters must be allowed to ‘stop work’ when they deem it necessary for the safety and wellbeing of the crew.
Creating the right conditions for quality rest is also important. Care should be taken to avoid influences that interfere with sleep. Accommodation areas should be cool, with the option of shielded daylight, and insulated from noise and vibration. The same applies to recreational and catering facilities, to create an environment where seafarers can unwind calmly. Comfortable mattresses should be prioritised.
Our industry should consider a cap on contract lengths – the report suggests six months – for time spent at work and on leave. As Frances Coultas, a working seafarer, points out, “There needs to be an acknowledgement that contract length has a significant impact on seafarers’ health – both mental and physical. While some of the people I have worked with appreciate contracts of nine months or more, due to the opportunity to make more money, the feedback I more commonly receive is that more than six months is not ideal, as people complain of mounting fatigue, stress and an apathy for work. This is when mistakes happen, which puts their health at risk, not to mention also risking the health of crew members around them.”
Coultas points out that while nine months is an industry standard, this does not mean that it is the best option for seafarers in the long term. On the one hand it may appeal to crew looking to secure nine months’ wages, but on the other, working such long contracts can have long-lasting negative health impacts and ultimately lead to a shortened career and source of financial stability.
GRUELLING WATCH SCHEDULES NEED TO BE ADDRESSED, SUCH AS THE EXHAUSTING WATCHKEEPING ROUTINE OF ‘SIX ON, SIX OFF’, WHICH OFTEN PREVENTS CREW FROM EVER GETTING AN EFFECTIVE SEVEN HOURS OF SLEEP
It is unlikely that a single set of solutions will succeed for all seafarers, so it is important that we offer a range of potential solutions and institute as many as possible to maximise our chances of tackling fatigue.
The causes and remedies are clear. Seafarers are justifiably tired of talking about fatigue; the time has come for real commitments to make lives better for the people that keep the world’s supply chains moving.