Shipping is a 24/7 industry, working across borders and time zones, and often running to strict schedules. But the increasingly intensive nature of shipping operations means that seafarers often have to work long and irregular hours, with factors such as noise, vibration, port calls and bad weather making it hard to get sufficient quantity and quality of sleep.
There have been many examples of shipping accidents linked to sleepiness – including the tanker Exxon Valdez grounding in 1989, the Herald of Free Enterprise capsize in 1987 and the grounding of the bulk carrier Shen Neng 1 in the Great Barrier Reef in 2010.
Nautilus is also concerned about the health problems for seafarers working long and irregular hours, with these shift patterns linked to gastrointestinal problems such as indigestion, abdominal pain, constipation, chronic gastritis and peptic ulcers; cardiovascular problems such as hypertension and coronary heart disease; and increased susceptibility to minor illnesses such as colds, flu and gastroenteritis.
Fatigue is also associated with a wide range of negative performance indicators, which can increase the likelihood of errors and accidents at work – with particularly marked effects on safety-critical tasks requiring vigilance and monitoring, decision making, awareness, fast reaction time, tracking ability and memory.
Nautilus believes that the existing regulations covering seafarers’ hours of work and rest are woefully inadequate. Under the International Labour Organisation regulations (social provisions) it is permitted for seafarers to work up to 91 hours a week – but, under the International Maritime Organisation’s STCW 2010 amendments (safety provisions), a 98-hour working week is allowed for up to two weeks in ‘exceptional’ circumstances.
The Union is concerned that the regulations covering minimum safe manning levels are also inadequate, and fail to reflect operational realities and demands onboard ships. Despite marked reductions in crewing complements in recent decades, workloads on seafarers have risen and new responsibilities such as those associated with international security regulations have created additional duties.
Nautilus is therefore campaigning for improved regulations and – in the short term – better enforcement of the existing regulations. The Union has sought to ensure protection for masters who delay sailing to ensure their crews are properly rested and has pressed for seafarers to be given adequate rest periods before starting duties after flying out to join ships overseas.
Nautilus has taken a lead role in global campaigning to combat fatigue at sea, and the Union has a long record of success in getting the issue on to the agenda at national, regional and international levels.
Back in 1995, the Nautilus predecessor union NUMAST conducted research among members to show the scale of the problem – with 50% reporting that they worked more than 85 hours a week. NUMAST’s research helped to secure a major new study by the Centre for Occupational and Health Psychology at Cardiff University. Its report, published in 2006, found that as many as one in four watchkeepers reported having fallen asleep on watch and more than 50% of respondents reported having no opportunity to have six hours of uninterrupted sleep.
Nautilus then became one of 11 industry and academic partners in the EU-funded Project Horizon research initiative to investigate the impact of sleepiness on the cognitive performance of seafarers. This pioneering research sought to advance understanding of seafarer fatigue through scientific analysis of data drawn from realistic working scenarios using experienced watchkeepers on ship simulators. The project took knowledge in this area to a new level, demonstrating the links between performance degradation and certain patterns of work, delivering validated, scientifically and statistically robust results that can be used to help determine safe working patterns in the interests of the safety of life at sea, the safety and security of the marine transport system and the protection of the marine environment.
Nautilus is continuing to raise awareness of the dangers posed by seafarer fatigue. The Union is lobbying politicians and regulatory bodies around the world to highlight the results of Project Horizon and the case for improved legislation.
The Union is also campaigning for the adoption of fatigue management techniques by the shipping industry. Nautilus believes such strategies will ensure that owners, operators, maritime regulators and seafarers are fully aware of the way in which sleepiness can affect critical performance and to provide guidance to recognise and mitigate the effects of tiredness so that they can organise work patterns at sea in the safest and healthiest way possible.
One of the outcomes of Project Horizon was the development of a prototype fatigue management toolkit – MARTHA – which uses scientifically verified data to help predict which portions of a voyage or a watchkeeping period will be most critical from a fatigue point of view, allowing mitigating action to be planned ahead of time. Nautilus is pressing for the widespread adoption of this technology as part of a ‘culture change programme’ against fatigue and to raise awareness of potential hazards among seafarers and operators.
Nautilus is also seeking further research into the health and safety issues associated with excessive work hours at sea.