MM&P: 'Six-on/six-off' fatigue study short on credibility


The following is the text of a news release from the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots (MMP):

(LINTHICUM HEIGHTS, Md.) — A recently released paper on the “six-on/six-off” system is little more than an opinion piece intended to serve the interests of operators in the inland tug and barge industry.

MM&P made the statement in an interview with Nautilus, the publication of the British, French and Swiss maritime officers’ union.

The paper, “Enhancing Sleep Efficiency on Vessels in the Tug/Towboat/Barge Industry,” is the product of Northwestern University’s National Cooperative Freight Research Program (NCFRP).

In the introduction, the authors state that guidance in preparing the paper was provided by freight stakeholders with emphasis placed on representing the intended users.

The Transportation Research Board (TRB), which published the paper, states specifically in the introduction that it does not necessarily share the opinions and conclusions presented therein.

“It is interesting to note that the paper came out at the same time the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) identified fatigue in the transportation industry as a high-priority issue that it needs to address,” said MM&P Vice President George Quick. “The timing, the methodology and the conclusions appear to be an attempt to justify the current six-on/six-off watch system in the towing industry. The paper is not based on an independent scientific study but on interviews as to the opinions of the stakeholders — company officials or employees — who have an interest in or are under pressure to shape the outcome.”

In the paper, he added, “Self-serving opinions combined with selected research papers on fatigue and sleep in a very different environment, such as astronauts in space, are used to justify inherently unsafe practices.”

Quick said there is “a serious credibility issue” with the paper, calling it “essentially an advocacy position paper for the American Waterways Operators,” a trade group that represents companies in the towing and barge industry.

As a counterpoint to the NCFRP paper, Quick cites The Horizon Project, a multi-year scientific study of the impact on cognitive performance of watchkeeping patterns.

In The Horizon Project, which was sponsored by the European Commission, researchers analyzed data drawn from realistic scenarios using experienced watchkeepers working on ship simulators.

In stark contrast to the views expressed in the NCFRP paper, The Horizon Project found substantial risks caused by fatigue-induced impairment of cognitive ability in the six-on/six-off watch system.

“The NCFRP paper should be viewed in the context of the longstanding debate between regulators, companies and seafarers as to the solution to the endemic problem of fatigue-induced accidents in the maritime transportation industry that operates 24/7,” Quick said. “There is no doubt that fatigue is a serious problem. The debate is over the possible solutions.”

Because manning costs money, companies argue that there is no need for additional resources. Their position is that the problem can be solved through “effective management” of available resources, such as the fatigue resource management system (FRMS) advocated in the NCFRP paper.

Seafarers and their advocates argue instead that in many cases vessels are undermanned and without sufficient resources to manage fatigue. They view the FRMS as a way to shift the responsibility for fatigue from the company to the watch stander: if seafarers have a fatigue-related accident, they are blamed for not having properly managed their work and rest periods.

“To avoid fatigue and resulting accidents, there is clearly a need to match the resources to the required operational workload,” Quick said. “In our view the NCFRP paper is just another example of the companies attempting to influence the upcoming NTSB review of fatigue in the transportation industry.”

By Professional Mariner Staff