Salyers: Small lifestyle changes can reduce mariner fatigue, improve endurance


Is your body a well-maintained machine or an accident waiting to happen?

Humans are not designed for the lifestyle and 24/7 environment of the maritime industry.

Typically, the natural circadian rhythm, or “biological clock,” makes a person sleepy or alert on a normal schedule. Without proper management, not being able to follow your body’s circadian rhythm can have a variety of negative effects including fatigue, health issues, reduced endurance and poor cognitive skills.

Understanding how your body, your machine, works and the roles sleep, nutrition, hydration, and other factors play in keeping you healthy and alert is important. Most people take better care of their cars, trucks, motorcycles, and boats than of their own bodies. We tend to have the oil changed, tune ups and maintenance performed “per manufacturer recommendations” for equipment but many individuals don’t have regular checkups or pay attention to signs of trouble with their own bodies. Keep in mind that a person doesn’t develop high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease or other medical conditions overnight. We put poor fuel in our machines, don’t take care of them, and still somehow expect optimal performance.

Your vessel wouldn’t operate well on the wrong fuel and with little or no maintenance. Similarly, you are likely not operating at your optimal level. Risk factors such as lack of sleep (quality and quantity); common health issues (Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep apnea and obesity); environmental conditions (noise, temperature and vibration); and other factors (stress, caffeine and nicotine abuse and use of over-the-counter medications) may be affecting your work performance. Over time these risk factors lead to fatigue, impaired performance, and a lower quality of life both in and outside of work.

Knowledge is power

In the maritime industry, there are tools in place to investigate near misses and accidents to determine the root cause and prevent future incidents. Regular safety checks and inspections are also completed as a preventive measure. For our bodies, physicals are performed and metrics are used to gauge our health — blood pressure, cholesterol, weight, the dreaded BMI, and overall how we feel.

With or without these metrics, we often have misconceptions about our ability to perform our jobs.

We think we are in good condition to handle our duties in the safest manner and make the best decisions. When we add up how much quality sleep we get, our physical condition, and the environment we work and live in while on the job, we may not realize that the more fatigued we are (and fatigue is cumulative) the harder it becomes for us to accurately gauge our abilities to perform tasks and make good decisions.

Many individuals are surprised to learn how small changes can greatly reduce fatigue and increase endurance. Oftentimes there are “quick win” solutions, including:

Nutrition: The best foods to eat when coming on watch or getting off watch;

Quality sleep: Although you may not be waking up, noise, vibration or other risk factors could be preventing you from getting quality sleep, so adjustments in your sleeping area can increase deep sleep and prevent fatigue;

Over-the-counter medications: Certain medications may be better suited for a specific watch or hitch;

Light management: Certain intensities of light affect your ability to stay awake and get quality sleep.

Caffeine: Used properly, caffeine is a very good countermeasure to fatigue and studies show that it has health benefits; used improperly it can cause insomnia and contribute to health problems.

Healthier work and life

After identifying the risk factors affecting you most, it’s important to find a solution that will fit into your operation. There is no one size fits all answer to reducing fatigue and increasing endurance. The USCG Crew Endurance Management System (CEMS) is defined as “A system for managing the risk factors that can lead to human error and performance degradation in maritime work environments.” CEMS outlines steps on identifying risk factors and addressing ways to either eliminate or reduce them. In reality some of these risk factors in the industry may not be able to be eliminated or reduced, but once identified, awareness of key risks makes the work environment safer for everyone.

Happier and healthier crews are an important part of the long-term success of the maritime industry. CEMS provides a framework for the reduction of risks while promoting an optimal lifestyle for crewmembers on and off duty. For more information and resources on the Crew Endurance Management System, visit the USCG CEMS website:

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