Crew Fatigue and Marine Safety

Seafaring has always encountered the problem of crew fatigue. The need for continuous vigil, dealing with atypical conditions and higher workloads can take a huge toll on personnel aboard ships. The Exxon Valdez oil spill was one of the first debacles in shipping history to be directly linked to and triggered by crew fatigue. A preliminary report about the Shen Neng oil spill has it that the man steering the Chinese coal carrier was “chronically fatigued”.  Lack of proper rest has time and again led to putting marine safety at risk.

Crew Fatigue from Where?

Long watches due to crew deficit or inefficiency, emergencies and challenging conditions have made long watches commonplace for seafarers. Changing time-zones as a ship travels adds to the plight. These factors may result in lack of sleep, uneven sleep patterns and, consequently, the biological clock being severely impacted. Thus, the need to address crew fatigue and plan rest hours for seafarers for ensuring marine safety.

A report on Fatigue Mitigation and Management by the IMO qualifies a deep sleep of 7-8 hours to be adequate rest. The report states diverse factors for crew fatigue. These include inadequate/poor diet, monotony, inadaptability to time zones, allergy, stress, vessel factors and scheduling, all factors that emerge as irritable syndrome causing crew fatigue. Apart from these, there are factors of sensitivity to certain climes, and tiredness due to reduced resistance.

Crew Fatigue Can Bring Down an Entire Ship

It has been proved that one man’s lethargy is enough to put the whole ship into trouble, especially if he is manning the bridge or at some other instrumental position. Fatigued personnel are always at risk of exposing an entire vessel to risk since they are prone to errors of attention and memory. Moreover, in a marine safety survey on crew fatigue, one in four seafarers admitted to having fallen asleep while on watch. Fatigue is reported to weaken responses to stimuli. Such seafarers would lose conviction for decisions and would experience suppressed problem solving skills. In doing so, not only do they expose themselves, but the entire crew and cargo to a catastrophe.

Crew fatigue affects physically, mentally, and emotionally. Seafarers can develop a propensity to undertake reckless and high risk-involving decisions only because these may demand lesser effort.

Can Crew Fatigue be Mitigated?

According to experts, the best way to prevent crew fatigue is to ensure that seafarers get proper rest and sleep. The ILO’s guidelines strictly lay down a minimum number of hours of rest for seafarers. Some ‘countermeasures’ to lower crew fatigue by a great degree have been devised. Seafarers can partake in fresh activities aboard, or can take up challenging physical or mental exercise. An appropriate amount of all these can stir up seafarers’ spirits and invigorate them. Apart from these, seamen can ask supervisors to rotate their activities and duties daily, mixing the heavier and lighter ones. This can address all fatigue-inducing monotony and keep lethargy at bay. If fatigue persists, the concerned seafarer can inform the supervisor that fatigue might be impairing performance.

It is extremely important for the crew to stay fit, healthy, and energized for the ship’s efficiency and safety. Crew fatigue comes across largely as inevitable, but its effects can be lessened to a significant extent by developing proper strategy.  Innovative drills and abiding by the regulations related to rest hours for seafarers can go a long way in eliminating crisis.