Failure to relieve crewmembers on time is one of the biggest contributors to fatigue and lack of motivation at sea, according to a study conducted by InterManager and seven academic partners.
In the three-year Project Martha, InterManager, a trade association for in-house and third-party ship managers, gathered data from more than 1,000 mariners from two Chinese state-run carriers and two Europe-based carriers. The mariners completed questionnaires, kept diaries and wore activity-tracking devices to capture their on- and off-duty activities and sleep patterns.
The study found a growing level of fatigue related to the stress and intellectual challenge of their jobs, particularly among masters and watchkeepers. The simplest step that vessel operators can take to help reduce stress and fatigue is to relieve mariners on schedule, said Capt. Kuba Szymanski, secretary-general of InterManager.
“If a seafarer is told he or she will be at sea for two months, they are fine, but if you tell them at two months, ‘We can’t actually relieve you now,’ that’s when motivation plummets and fatigue worsens,” Szymanski said. “The shore staff needs to think of better ways of arranging crew relief.”
Since the release of the study in 2016, InterManager has been conducting workshops with vessel operators in Athens, Singapore, Manila, Cyprus and Southampton, England, to discuss the findings and encourage attention to “low-hanging fruit” — simple steps that can make a big difference in the lives of seafarers.
Top factors that crewmembers said contributed to fatigue were job security, environmental issues, job demands, sleep quality, irregular work hours, the number of rest hours, and new regulations that could place more requirements on seafarers.
The study also made a point to differentiate sleepiness and fatigue. According to the study, sleepiness is simply the state of being sleepy, which can be addressed by going to sleep. By contrast, fatigue is a subjective feeling of tiredness that is distinct from weakness and has a gradual onset.
Sean Kline, director of maritime affairs for the Chamber of Shipping of America, said mariners have been subjected to a “regulatory tsunami” of rules relating to environmental management, electronic charting and cybersecurity, to name a few.
“We have to make sure that fatigue management doesn’t drop to the bottom of the priority list, especially when you consider the studies that compare it to impaired driving,” he said.
Masters reported that they suffer more fatigue than other crewmembers because of the demands of the job in terms of hours on duty as well as management of all activities on a vessel.
Port calls can be particularly stressful for the master and crew, the study found. In addition to cargo operations, they also may have to deal with crew changes, inspections from port states and classes, bunkering and replenishing stores. Port operators expect vessels to vacate berths as quickly as possible to accommodate other vessels, so there’s little to time to rest while tied up.
“So ship masters after three or four months are really, really fatigued,” Szymanski said. “While they do go to bed, they may not have good quality of sleep because of the demands of the job.”
The intellectual aspects of seafaring are more demanding than the physical aspects, the study found, as mariners are expected to keep pace with new technology and regulations on board.
“Our study showed clearly that those who work physically on board the ship are not as fatigued as those who are working mentally,” Szymanski said.
Some deepwater vessel operators have started using an additional third mate to help spread the workload to mitigate fatigue, according to Klaus Luhta, chief of staff for the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots.
While seafarers share responsibility for using their rest time properly, it’s patronizing for shore-side managers to expect to have more control of mariners’ off-duty time than they do for land-based employees, Szymanski noted.
“We shouldn’t have two standards — one standard for people ashore, so when you come off-duty you can do whatever you like, but when you’re at sea you can’t,” he said.