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As it is in industry generally, so it is in shipping. Man is being replaced by machine. This is nothing new. It has been happening ever since the start of the Industrial Revolution, over two hundred years ago. Elsewhere in this issue of Gard News, we write about the increased and increasing computerisation on the bridges and in the engine rooms of modern-day ships.

In the transport sector, there are trains which are unmanned and operated solely by computer. Aeroplanes operate largely on autopilot. Cars and other motor vehicles are assembled mainly by robots (mechanical ones, not human ones). We do not (yet) have the fully unmanned ship, but this may not be far off. There has been recent mention of an unmanned offshore platform. Perhaps such an idea is influenced by the surveys showing that human error, in some form or another, is responsible for the vast majority of maritime claims and casualties.

Underlying the reduction in crew numbers - of which the widespread abandonment of a dedicated radio officer is one example - is no doubt a wish on the part of the shipowners and managers to reduce costs. Shipowners operate in a very competitive environment. Consumers (and we are all consumers in some form) want to buy the best goods at the cheapest prices. However, recent comments from all sides of the industry suggest that fatigue and fatigue-related problems are increasingly affecting those remaining on board ships.

In the summer of 2001, the managing director of a short-sea shipping company in the UK was quoted as saying that keeping fatigue under control is the key to safe and efficient ship management in the high intensity European short-sea trades. He also commented that another key to controlling fatigue is not to "load the ship with paperwork". There are probably many masters and officers who would endorse his comments.

The US Coast Guard is also looking at the fatigue issue. It has established a partnership with the Chamber of Shipping of America, the declared objective of which is "to develop and implement a crew alertness, awareness and education plan for seafarers".

At a seminar in November 2001 on seafarer fatigue and minimum safe manning, the chairman of the ITF seafarers' section described what he said was a failure to set realistic crewing levels as a "ticking time bomb".

The chief inspector of the UK's Marine Accident and Investigation Branch (MAIB) has spoken about the "devastating effects of fatigue and sleep deprivation at sea" and has said that members of his staff regularly meet seafarers who are too tired to perform their duties properly. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (of which the MAIB is a part) recently issued a Marine Guidance Note on the question of fatigue. The Note made it clear that the primary responsibility for ensuring that seafarers on board ship are properly rested lies with shipowners and operators.

Last but by no means least, at last year's International Union of Marine Insurers' (IUMI) conference, a former serving master and representative of the International Federation of Shipmasters' Associations observed that, although the 1995 amendments to the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW ) Convention apply a limit to the number of hours which a watch-keeping officer can work, they do not apply any limit to a master's number of hours.

Naturally, liability and property insurers want their own employees to be well rested before starting work. They also want the employees of those who they are insuring to be well rested. Unfortunately, there are signs that the fatigue problem is getting worse, not better.

Several recent casualties have been attributed to "fatigue" and as indicated above, much comment has been generated as to whether crew levels on some vessels at least are too low and whether crews generally, especially the master and senior officers, fail to consistently obtain enough regular sleep.

It goes without saying that people work less efficiently and are inclined to make more mistakes if they are tired. Few of us are like Margaret Thatcher, who is apparently able to sleep for only a few hours each night and to wake up refreshed and fighting fit the next morning. For seafarers, who may be on duty and working for long periods before their rest period, which itself may be interrupted, the problem is compounded.

Perhaps the classic example concerns the small container feeder ship CITA. This casualty was featured in issue No. 148 of Gard News. It was established that the chief officer was alone on duty and that he had fallen asleep at least an hour before the vessel went aground. He had apparently had less than six hours sleep in the preceding 36 hours. The alarm which was supposed to go off at intervals - presumably to wake up the watch-keeping officer if he had fallen asleep - had been turned off.

This case is echoed by the recent incident (November 2001) involving the MELBRIDGE BILBAO, which ran aground on the coast of Brittany. According to the French investigating authorities, the chief officer said that he had deactivated the vessel's alarm systems to allow himself to sleep, as he was extremely tired after a very busy day. The chief officer was criminally prosecuted before a French court and was recently given a six month suspended prison sentence, plus a fine. A local environmental pressure group criticised the sentence on the basis that it did not examine or deal with the underlying cause(s) of the incident and did not penalise those responsible for the fact that the chief officer was overtired. Whether this and other similar incidents provide further scope for discussion and possible activity in relation to permitted working hours and manning levels remains to be seen.

The fatigue problem is getting worse.

Fortunately, neither vessel was covered by insurers represented by Gard Services, although the CITA was being used as a feeder vessel by many of the major container lines, including one entered with Assuranceforeningen Gard. As would be expected, numerous claims and issues have arisen out of this casualty and Gard Services remains heavily involved.

Gard Services is also involved in another case in which fatigue appears to have played an important part. Fortunately, the incident was much less serious than it could have been. In this case, a bulk carrier entered for P&I risks was outbound from a port in the US Gulf.

During the midnight to 0400 watch, the vessel struck a stationary oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico. The vessel had crossed in front of the platform and the contact was between the vessel's bridge wing and an extension of the platform, so the damage was limited. Had the contact been between the body of the vessel and the platform, the results could have been catastrophic. Investigations indicated that the officer on watch, who was alone at the time, had fallen asleep and had failed to note that the vessel was on a collision course with the platform. An out-of-court settlement of the resulting claim is being negotiated.

For every well-publicised casualty attributed to fatigue, there are several lower-profile incidents, some involving near misses and some, unfortunately, involving casualties which, although they may not hit the headlines, are nevertheless time-consuming and often expensive. Gard Services has been involved with several casualties, most of them groundings, where subsequent investigations have shown that a number of common factors are present. These are:
- the officer on watch (OOW) was alone leading up to and at the time of the casualty;
- the OOW was very tired at the time he started his watch;
- the OOW may well have fallen asleep on the bridge and thus failed to ensure that the vessel changed course as planned.

Of course, there may be various reasons why the OOW was very tired at the time he started his watch, but the simple explanation seems to be that he had too much work to do in too short a period of time and was therefore unable to sleep at all or for long enough to ensure that he was properly rested.

These cases involve the officer on watch, alone on the bridge, falling asleep at a critical time, but it is not necessary for a seafarer to fall asleep for fatigue to cause or contribute to an accident. Simply being tired may well cause a seafarer to lose concentration and focus, especially while performing a dangerous or difficult job.

If it is true that the vast majority of accidents are due, in some way, to human error, it would seem to follow that those humans directly involved in running and navigating the ship should be as well-rested and prepared for their job as possible. It is much easier to make a mistake when you are tired. Perhaps one answer is, as was suggested by a Belgian Minister at the First European Parliamentary Symposium on Maritime Safety in Brussels at the end of January, to use the working time arrangements for lorry drivers as a benchmark for seafarers. Lorry drivers call the machine which measures how long in that particular day their vehicle has been moving the "spy in the cab". The future may see the introduction of some sort of "spy on the bridge", although this may have to be somewhat more advanced if it is to measure the number of hours which each individual seafarer works. Perhaps each seafarer will have his/her own machine. Whatever the future holds, it may well be that the apparently increasing number of fatigue-related casualties leads to legislative action being taken to introduce and enforce a limit of the number of hours worked by seafarers. Owners and operators may have to review manning levels. This is likely to have an impact on all of us.

Gard News is published quarterly by Gard Services AS, Arendal, Norway.