NTSB labels Coast Guard efforts to address
mariner fatigue as ‘unacceptable’

In an effort to reduce accidents, the National Transportation Safety Board is renewing its efforts to get the Coast Guard to adopt regulations that would reduce fatigue among mariners, including rules that would prescribe longer periods of uninterrupted sleep.

The NTSB has been urging the Coast Guard since 1989 to revise regulations governing working hours. At a November 2007 meeting the NTSB reviewed its Most Wanted List of safety measures. At that time, the board classified the Coast Guard’s response to an earlier NTSB recommendation on fatigue as “unacceptable.”

In June 1999, the NTSB added a recommendation on fatigue to its Most Wanted List, urging the Coast Guard to establish working-hour limits based on scientific knowledge of human sleep needs. The Coast Guard declined to adopt the NTSB’s recommendation. In an October 1999 letter to the NTSB, the Coast Guard explained its refusal to act, citing the “complexities of the marine transportation system.”

Since the NTSB’s November 2007 meeting, the fatigue recommendation on the Most Wanted List Web page has been color-coded red to indicate an unsatisfactory, overdue response. Mike Brown, the marine and pipeline transportation safety specialist with the NTSB, said that the NTSB is currently finalizing a letter to the Coast Guard expressing its dissatisfaction with the lack of progress on the fatigue recommendation.

Current regulations have not changed since the early part of the 20th century. To date, the Coast Guard has not adopted any regulatory standards to ensure that mariners get the amount of predictable, continuous rest needed to remain alert.

However, the Coast Guard has invested substantial resources into the problem of fatigue. A 1996 analysis by the Coast Guard of 279 incidents identified fatigue as a factor in 33 percent of injuries and in 16 percent of vessel casualties.

Acknowledging that fatigue poses a significant risk to mariner safety, in 2003 the Coast Guard introduced a program for reducing the risk of fatigue-related accidents known as the Crew Endurance Management System (CEMS). The intent of CEMS is to establish a schedule on vessels where crewmembers can regularly obtain eight hours of continuous, uninterrupted sleep, which Coast Guard research defines as the average person’s daily sleep requirement.

American Waterway Operators (AWO), the national trade association for the U.S. tugboat, towboat and barge industry, is a prominent advocate for CEMS. Bob Clinton, vice president of safety with AWO, explained that participation in CEMS is increasing, with about 2,000 CEMS coaches trained at the end of 2007.

“We support the Coast Guard’s efforts wholeheartedly,” said Clinton. “It’s not one size fits all. That’s what frightens us about government regulations.”

While the NTSB is aware of Coast Guard efforts to promote CEMS, it asserts that the program is voluntary, and therefore may not be adopted, or if adopted, may not be properly implemented. A CEMS demonstration project completed in 2005 showed that about half of participating vessels preserved their existing six-on, six-off watch schedule, effectively denying crewmembers adequate sleep periods.

Brown observed that “guidance isn’t good enough.”

“You can only take so much, and after a while you become a zombie,” said Brown. “Nobody’s willing to say maybe we need to go to a three-mate watch or a three-operator watch. It gets expensive.”


See related article, Coast Guard probe of Chesapeake grounding concludes that pilot may have fallen asleep.

By Professional Mariner Staff