Salyers: Day-boat crew have their own set of fatigue risk factors


Diversity of maritime operations but when it comes to the importance of endurance “we’re all in the same boat.”

Taking into account that 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, consider the variety of operations in, or associated with, the maritime industry. Whatever your particular area of operation(s) may be (i.e., inland towboats, harbor boats, coastal tugs, tankers, ferries, shipyards, ship assist vessels, shore tankerman, longshoremen, ship pilots, etc.) there is one common element – the human element.  The human element may bring issues into the maritime lifestyle which could possibly adversely affect endurance. This is where the range of approaches presented in the United States Coast Guard’s Crew Endurance Management System (CEMS) recognizes the risk factors that could lead to human error and performance degradation that may apply, in unique ways, to all areas of maritime operations.

The operation focused on in this article is the harbor boat (a.k.a. dinner bucket boat, day boat) where crewmembers work their shift, usually 12 hour shifts, then are shoreside for their time off instead of living on the vessel.  Shoreside could mean they go home or, for some companies, a dorm-style facility for the crewmembers to stay during the off times of their hitch. Two examples of hitches and schedules are 1) 7 (12 hour) days / 7 (12 hour) nights / 7 days off or 2) 14 (12 hour) days / 14 days off / 14 (12 hour) nights.  Crewmembers staying in a shoreside company dormitory usually work at least two weeks at a time then go home for their time off.  Working these schedules doesn’t mean the end of a “normal life” but planning ahead to incorporate rest, as well as a social life, is vital.

For crewmembers that go home daily between shifts one of the challenges is being in “their life” and the responsibilities of family obligations, “honey-do’s”, friends, hobbies, etc. This makes education and time management critical. When crewmembers stay at a company dormitory shoreside there aren’t the distractions of being at home but time management is still crucial. With both of these scenarios there are specific challenges that, if not managed, may play a major role in fatigue, health issues and stress.

“If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.”

CEMS identifies 15 specific risk factors which can possibly threaten operational safety and crewmember efficiency in the maritime industry.  Following is an outline of these risk factors, how they may affect harbor boat crewmembers and examples of how countermeasures may allow crewmembers to eliminate, reduce or, at least, work safety with each of them to increase endurance and overall quality of life.

The first 7 risk factors are directly related to sleep, schedules and circadian rhythm:
1.        Insufficient daily sleep duration.
2.        Poor sleep quality.
3.        Sleep fragmentation.
4.        Scheduling main sleep period during the day.
5.        Changing work/rest schedules.
6.        Long work hours.
7.        No opportunities to make up lost sleep.

Information:  Duration and quality of sleep is important to obtain enough sleep stages to repair and rejuvenate your cells and cognitive energy (memory, thought process, reasoning). Sleep deprivation, or poor quality of sleep, results in the individual being at a lower level of performance and may have impaired motor functions, delayed vision recognition time, delayed auditory reaction time, moodiness and irritability. These may affect your health (to name some of the consequences).  

Issues:  Harbor boat crews that go home or stay in a dormitory have the responsibility to plan their sleep to obtain the optimum amount that they need. This includes making healthy choices for sleep which includes your surroundings, strategy, discussions with family and friends concerning your sleep schedule and personal choices regarding sleep.

Countermeasures:  Education on sleep and the role it plays in your endurance and issues that may affect your being able to get quality sleep is essential.

Risk factors 8, 9, 10 & 11 fall under the category of physical stressors:
8.        Poor diet.
9.        High workload.

10.      High stress
11.      No opportunity for exercise

Poor diet –

Information:  Eating heavy meals or a large quantity of food before going to bed will adversely affect your quality of sleep as well as contribute to acid reflux, heartburn and other gastrointestinal problems. The timing of caffeine use also contributes to poor quality sleep. Our bodies also metabolize food differently at night resulting in night shift workers being more prone to weight gain and being at a higher risk for health issues.

Issues:  In most cases harbor boat crews that go home after each shift bring their own meals to the vessels and may only have a microwave and refrigerator available and, possibly, only a short time to eat so food preparation time is at a minimum.  Eating prior to going to work may not be a priority if the crewmember wakes up with a short amount of time to get ready to go to work or possibly pick up fast food and eat on the go. When going home, especially if fatigued, poor choices of what to eat may be made prior to going to bed.  Caffeine has its place but if used within 4 hours of sleep can contribute to poor sleep quality and fragmented sleep.

Countermeasures:  Education on what types of foods are best to eat for energy vs. to help sleep. Planning is imperative to bring health foods to work with considerations on preparation time and storage/cooking facilities and healthy snacks so that you’re not famished when you get off work and pick up unhealthy food on the way home. Eating with your family may provide both a relaxed setting for a good meal as well as time for you to interact with your family.  Caffeine, if used after waking up and/or mid-watch can be effective in providing alertness if the crewmember is not already addicted to caffeine.  Learning what other options can be used to give crewmembers that boost they may need is important.

High workload & high stress –

Information:  Some stress is normal and often provides us with the energy and motivation to meet daily challenges.  But when a high workload or working in a high stress environment keep an individual from time to eat properly or get some opportunities to have a break during their watch these situations can have a negative impact on overall health.

Issues:  Although crewmembers are usually given breaks if a person isn’t in good physical, or mental, condition these issues may play a role in not making the best decisions in taking care of themselves or working safely.  The negative effects could compromise sleep, affect blood pressure, cause stomach problems and anxiety, errors in judgment and depression (to name a few).

Countermeasures:  Getting proper sleep, eating healthy meals and snacks, exercising and having time to relax and wind down while at home will result in an individual being able to better handle shifts that may result in a higher workload or a stressful environment. If an individual isn’t able to handle the challenges of these risk factors on their own or they’re adversely affecting their job and relationships, at home or work, most companies have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that offer helpful services.

No opportunity for exercise –

Information:  Exercise is a way for most individuals to increase endurance, enhance sleep, think clearly, manage stress and improve health and well-being.

Issues:  Shift work generally decreases opportunities for physical activity and even under the best circumstances exercising regularly takes a commitment. For crewmembers staying in a company dormitory shoreside exercise equipment may be easily accessible with the time to use it on a regular basis.  Crewmembers that go home after each shift may feel that there isn’t much time to take advantage of going to a gym or a formal workout period during their work weeks. Also, depending on the shift, exercise may not be tolerated well because of the particular time of day, or night, available.

Countermeasures:  Consider activities with your family that will give you aerobic and strength training benefits. Stay active, to whatever levels are possible, throughout your hitch and off time so that whatever positive effects on fatigue and health you attain won’t be lost from “sitting out” during these periods.

The next set of risk factors, 12 & 13, fall under the category of environmental stressors:
12.        Lack of control over work environment or decisions.
13.        Excessive exposure to extreme environments.

Information:  When work conditions include physical stressors such as noise, vibration and extreme temperatures overall tolerance for other stressors, as well as motivation, decreases. Travel time may also fall under the “lack of control” risk factor.

Issues:  Work decisions may include rigid work practices, “my way or the highway” type supervisors and not being able to be included in any work decisions. The elimination or reduction of some environmental stressors may not be possible but identifying these risk factors is the first step to addressing them in the Crew Endurance Plan.

Countermeasures:  Education on the safe ways to work, and travel to and from work, with these physical stressors can mitigate the adverse effects.  Management style and other issues regarding supervision needs to be addressed if identified as a risk factor by any crewmembers.  

The last two risk factors, 14 & 15, fall under the category of personal stressors:
14.        Family stress.
15.        Isolation from family.

Information:  Although crewmembers in a harbor boat environment may go home daily after their shift these two risk factors may be significant at times.  Maintaining a healthy social life takes effort.

Issues:  Lack of time to spend with friends and family.

Countermeasures:  Time management and planning will result in a healthy balance of quality time for family and friends and taking care of personal needs to be able to perform the job safely and maintain good health.

Some of the challenges of the maritime industry, no matter what type of operation you’re in, will be unique to each individual. The above information and the resources in the Coast Guard’s Crew Endurance Management System website,, will provide a tool box of resources to customize a Crew Endurance Plan that improves quality of life of crewmembers and their overall maritime lifestyle.

Jo Ann Salyers is an independent consultant and owner of Salyers Solutions, LLC, with 35 years in the safety, training and risk management areas of the maritime industry. Jo Ann is a certified USCG CEMS Expert and holds CEMS Coaches and Awareness sessions throughout the country. Visit or e-mail:, or phone (504) 236-4962.

By Professional Mariner Staff