Data show that more than 75 % of marine casualties are the result of human error. Fatigue is documented as the primary cause of 16% of maritime casualties and is a factor in an additional 37% of casualties. Experts suggest that this is just the tip of the iceberg and that fatigue is a factor in the vast majority of marine casualties caused by human error.
Lack of rest has been the lot of seafarers at least since voyages beyond the sight of land became common. Until recently, little has been done formally to address the problem. Governments routinely issue minimum manning certificates for vessels that, while meeting the safe manning level requirements established by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), ignore the realities of life and work on a modern vessel at sea. In olden days (say, pre-WWII), ships made a transoceanic voyage and then spent a week or more in port while the cargo was unloaded and new cargo was loaded. Meanwhile, the crew rested and enjoyed shore leave.
That is no longer the case. Ships unload cargoes, reload, and are underway in less than 48 hours – less than 24 hours in many instances. Shore leave is a thing of the past. Heightened security makes it difficult to get ashore. Even for those legally able to go ashore, practical realities get in the way. Commercial ports are now largely isolated from city centers. In addition, the crew is generally fully occupied in getting the ship unloaded, reloaded, reprovisioned, repaired, inspected, and reinspected in the short time before departure. Thus, shore leave or even the chance to catch up on sleep while the ship is in port seldom happens.
Laws generally prohibit a licensed individual or seafarer in the deck or engine department of an oceangoing vessel from being required to work more than eight hours in one day. The key word here is “required”. Mariners routinely work well in excess of eight hours per day. They are expected to by the code of the sea. They get paid overtime when they do so. There is little else to do on a ship at sea.
A ship is not like an office or factory ashore, where you can shut off the lights and close the door at the end of the day. A ship operates 24 hours per day almost every day of its existence, from commissioning to recycling. It requires a crew onboard the entire time. Minimum manning levels are barely able to cover the basic operational and housekeeping requirements. They do not take into account the additional man-hours required for addressing commercial issues (e.g., chartering, cargo inquiries, bunkering, victualing, crew changes) and regulatory issues (e.g., recordkeeping, reporting, drills, plan review and update, port state control inspections). I am not aware of an ocean-going ship that today operates with much more than the minimum crew required by its flag state. Thus, in my opinion, the owners and operators of every one of those vessels are expecting the crew to work more hours each day than is safe. The crews are pervasively and continually fatigued.
On June 23, 1989, the tanker World Prodigy grounded on Brenton Reef in Rhode Island Sound, spilling approximately 7,000 barrels of diesel fuel. All aids to navigation were operating properly and neither weather nor visibility was a factor in the grounding. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that the probable cause of the grounding was the master’s impaired judgment from acute fatigue, which led to his decisions to decrease the bridge watch and attend to nonessential tasks during a crucial period in the ship’s navigation. The master had been on the bridge almost continuously for the 33 hours preceding the grounding. He failed to monitor the position of the vessel as it was approaching the port and it grounded on a charted and marked reef. The incident is rightly considered a prime example of the adverse impact of fatigue on judgment and the performance of even routine duties. Unfortunately, the World Prodigy casualty is only one of many resulting from crew fatigue. It is merely one of the best-documented.
One of the first regulations directly addressing limits on hours of work was promulgated by the US Coast Guard in September 1993. It provides that, on vessels conducting lightering operations in a designated lightering zone, a seafarer may not work, except in an emergency or a drill, more than 15 hours in any 24-hour period, or more than 36 hours in any 72-hour period.
In November 1993, the IMO adopted a Resolution addressing fatigue factors in vessel manning and safety. The resolution noted that fatigue results in the degradation of human performance, the slowing down of physical and mental reflexes and/or impairment of the ability to make rational judgments. Fatigue may be induced by factors such as prolonged periods of mental or physical activity, inadequate rest, adverse environmental factors, or stress. Among the most commonly recognized and documented causes of fatigue among seafarers are poor quality of rest, excessive workload, noise, and interpersonal relationships. Management ashore and afloat and flag administrations are supposed to take these factors into account when establishing manning levels and work schedules.
In 1997, Member States adopted major amendments to the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW Convention), along with the accompanying STCW Code. Among other things, the Convention stated that each Administration shall, for the purpose of preventing fatigue, establish and enforce rest periods for watchkeeping personnel. The Code was more explicit, stating that watchkeepers shall be provided a minimum of 10 hours of rest in any 24-hour period and not less than 70 hours of rest in each seven-day period. The 2010 Manila Amendments to the STCW Convention and Code, which came into effect on 1 January 2012, expanded the rest requirement to a minimum of 77 hours in any 7-day period. Administrations are further enjoined to require that records of daily hours of rest of seafarers be maintained in a standardized format to allow for monitoring and verification of compliance by the Administration and during port state control examinations.
These efforts should go a long way toward reducing the pervasive fatigue present among seafarers on almost all commercial vessels. Real progress, though, will only be evident when manning levels on commercial vessels are increased. There is a large volume of work to be accomplished on an operating vessel. Only by increasing the number of hands available to perform that work can exhaustion of crewmembers be reduced. The principles of safe manning, as established by the 1999 IMO Resolution, are supposed to take into consideration the watchkeeping requirements of the STCW Convention (and Code) and ensure that the master, officers, and ratings do not work more hours than is safe. Manning levels should be such as to ensure that the time and place available for taking rest periods are appropriate for achieving a good quality of rest.
In order to minimize disparate impact that would be caused by piecemeal increases in manning levels, it is recommended that flag Administrations come to a mutual agreement on safe manning levels for different types and sizes of commercial vessels. Deviations could be allowed only if the flag Administration clearly articulates the basis for a particular vessel’s allowed deviation and provides the IMO with a written explanation for the deviation. In the meantime, flag Administrations and port states should vigorously monitor and enforce the rest period recordkeeping requirement on all ships. Only through such efforts will we make meaningful progress in the war against seafarer fatigue.