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 believes that seafarer fatigue is one of the biggest issues threatening health and safety in the shipping industry.
The Union continues to highlight extensive evidence of accidents caused by sleepiness and is campaigning for more effective regulations to prevent excessive working hours.
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.
Seafarers working long and irregular hours face health problems, with 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 upset stomachs.
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 was 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.
Project Horizon led to the production of a report and video about the project.
Another outcome 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.
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. Nautilus believes that the regulations are woefully inadequate.
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 for seafarers have increased and new responsibilities such as those associated with international security regulations have created additional duties.
Nautilus is 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 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. Members can support this work by contacting their elected representatives.
The Union is also campaigning for the adoption of fatigue management techniques by the shipping industry. Members can engage with owners, operators, maritime regulators and seafarers to make them aware of how sleepiness can affect critical performance and encourage them 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.
The Project Horizon Fatigue Management Toolkit report contains a range of suggestions on good practice for the industry.