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Fatigue at sea is a problem which needs urgent attention.

Don't get dog tired on watch!

Photo courtesy of Bull Sworn Surveyors S.L.


A serious problem
There continues to be a sharp and detailed focus on seafarer fatigue. The Centre for Occupational and Health Psychology at Cardiff University in Wales has recently (November 2006) published an 87-page report into seafarer fatigue.1 The Nautical Institute is concentrating several of its forthcoming “Alert!” bulletins on this issue. Other industry and industry-related organisations, notably the International Transport Workers’ Federation, have carried out studies into this problem. Five years ago an article in Gard News2 reported on fatigue-related casualties and pointed out that all sides of the industry were expressing concern about fatigue in seafarers, especially officers. The article said that “there are signs that the fatigue problem is getting worse, not better.” What – if anything – has changed since then and how?

Regrettably, the answer seems to be “very little”. If anything, increased and increasing commercial pressure within the shipping industry means that companies and individuals in these companies are continually required to provide the best possible service, in the shortest time available and at the lowest cost possible. This is not to say that any or all of these objectives are, by definition, wrong or dangerous. It is, however, undeniable that cutting costs is often the easiest to achieve of these three objectives and it is sometimes the case that the greatest and possibly disproportionate emphasis is placed on the cost factor.

As mentioned in the 2002 article, it is natural for shipowners, operating in a very competitive environment, to wish to keep their operating costs to a minimum. Thus many owners will crew their ships with no more than the minimum number of people required by the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping Convention (STCW). This is perfectly legal and they are quite entitled to do so. Understandably, very few owners will, voluntarily, place themselves at what they would see as a commercial disadvantage by employing more crew than they are legally obligated to do.

Unfortunately, evidence collected in recent years by many organisations inside and outside the industry in relation to fatigue-related casualties suggests that the problem remains a serious one. Despite all the attention and publicity the problem is not going away. Indeed, with the growth in world trade and consequent expected increase in the number, size and value of ships, it is a major concern that not only are fatigue-related casualties going to be with us for the foreseeable future, but also that they are likely to increase.

Bridge Watchkeeping Safety Study
In July 2004 the UK’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB), published a report entitled “Bridge Watchkeeping Safety Study”. The report may be found at www.maib.gov.uk/publications/safety_studies.cfm. Gard strongly recommends every shipowner and operator to read this report, especially those operating in the short sea and container trades. Based on its own investigations into many casualties around the UK coastline, the MAIB takes the view that, in certain trades at least, the minimum manning levels and required hours of rest provided for in STCW are insufficient to prevent fatigue-related casualties continuing to occur. Particular reference is made to the system of a six-hours-on/six-hours-off watch practised on many short sea vessels, where the master and chief officer – the only two deck officers on board – each stand two watches in one 24-hour period. These watches are in addition to all the other tasks which these officers have to perform. The MAIB comments that “as ships operating with just two bridge watchkeepers including the master, working in opposite watches, are likely to have fatigued OOWs, and the masters of these vessels are frequently unable to discharge all of the duties required of them, the need for more than two watchkeepers is obvious”. This view is shared by the Nautical Institute, which, in Bulletin 13 of its “Alert!” magazine, says that “in these cases, the solution is simple: increase the manning to remove the master from the watchkeeping roster and consider an alternative watchkeeping pattern”. The MAIB believes that their research “illustrates that the hours of work and lookout requirements contained in STCW 95, along with the principles of safe manning, are having insufficient impact in their respective areas”.

The report contains recommendations to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), the agency responsible for implementing the UK government’s maritime safety policy throughout the UK, to take the findings of the report to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) with a view to reviewing the guidelines on safe manning for vessels operating a “master and mate” system and the requirements of STCW relating to a designated (and dedicated) lookout, working as an integral part of the bridge team.

Gard has seen many cases which mirror the problems identified by the MAIB. A couple of examples will suffice.

Example 1
This is the “classic” case of a sole officer of the watch (OOW) falling asleep while on watch. The vessel, a small short-sea general cargo trader, entered with Gard for P&I risks, was on a voyage from Iceland to the UK. While passing between the north of Scotland and the Orkney Islands during the early hours of the morning, a time at which the human body is perhaps most vulnerable to falling asleep, the OOW did exactly that. As a result, the vessel failed to change course and went aground on an island. The vessel sustained substantial damage to her bottom. A salvage contract, on LOF terms, with SCOPIC incorporated, was signed with a salvage company. The amount of the salvage award remains to be established or agreed, as does any cargo claim.

The vessel operated with seven crew (one more than stipulated in her Safe Manning Certificate). The master and chief officer operated a “watch-on/watch-off” system. Many of the other crew members had dual roles. The chief officer was on watch when he fell asleep. He was alone on the bridge, despite the provision within STCW that “the OOW may be the sole lookout in daylight conditions” (our emphasis). The chief officer woke up only when the vessel went aground.

Investigations indicated that the chief officer had become fatigued shortly before the incident during periods of intense work and had been unable to obtain enough proper rest before the voyage. When he fell asleep, there was nobody on the bridge to wake him up. The vessel was not fitted with a “dead man’s alarm”. Nor was she required to be.

For the reasons stated above, it is not known what the final cost of this incident will be. However, the master has been prosecuted by the UK authorities (the MCA) for breach of one section of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 and, having pleaded guilty, he has had to pay a fine and now has a criminal record in the UK. The MCA has indicated that it also intends to bring criminal charges against the shipowners.

It is too early to say what the total financial cost will be. It is, however, likely to be significant. This ignores the human cost to the master and chief officer.

Example 2
A small (approximately 6,000 GT) container feeder vessel ran aground on an island in the Aegean Sea. This vessel had cover for loss of hire with Gard, but her P&I cover was with another Club. As in the previous example, the chief officer was the OOW and was alone on the bridge at the material time. Due to fatigue, he fell asleep, the vessel failed to change course as planned and grounded at full speed. The vessel sustained serious bottom damage. Oil from her bunker tanks was spilt. An LOF salvage agreement was signed with salvors. The vessel was re-floated and repaired.

The vessel was out of service for over 94 days. The bill for the repairs and costs associated therewith came to around EUR 2 million. The amount awarded to or agreed to be payable to the salvors is not yet known. Nor is the amount paid by the P&I Club for the oil pollution or for any other third party liabilities, but it is clear that the cost to owners and their various insurers arising from the chief officer’s fatigue and the lack of anyone (or anything) to alert either him or another member of the crew to the problem was substantial.

In addition, the chief officer was criminally prosecuted by the Greek authorities for causing oil pollution. He was found guilty and sentenced to 18 months in prison. The sentence was appealed and suspended. Nevertheless, he too has a criminal record.

Are all masters and chief officers who take a watch without being properly rested criminally negligent? No, of course they are not, but there may be many who would, from their own experience, support the conclusion that, particularly on certain trades, they are consistently overworked and are unable to obtain the hours of rest stipulated by STCW. In such circumstances, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion reached by the MAIB that, in certain trades, the requirements of STCW may not be good enough to prevent more officers falling asleep while on watch.

When one adds in the fact that, as the examples show, the OOW is often the only person on the bridge and there is no alarm which operates so as to alert either the OOW or anyone else to the fact that there is nobody navigating the vessel, one has a recipe for disaster. The examples are merely the tip of the iceberg.

If owners, insurers and legislators wish to remedy the problem, an industry-wide approach is needed. It has been shown that, where the will exists, agreement can be reached and legislation enacted quickly. The MAIB report was published in July 2004. The MCA appears to have accepted its views and recommendations, and the IMO was looking at the issues of seafarer fatigue, work and rest hours and the appropriate levels of safe and minimum manning.

The secretary general of the IMO suggested that particular attention should be paid to the levels of safe manning so as to ensure that watches and watchkeeping hours are correctly performed and observed. The International Shipping Federation, representing many of the world’s leading shipowners, reportedly called for STCW to be reviewed and brought up to date, taking into account developments in ship operation and technology since the convention came into force.

It is therefore disappointing to see reports of a recent meeting of the IMO sub-committee on STCW stating that there was apparently “a lot of opposition at that meeting, mainly on financial grounds” to amending the existing regulations. According to the reports, certain countries, which one might expect to be at the forefront of safety at sea, have opposed any tightening of the rules and in fact may be seeking changes which could well exacerbate the fatigue problem.

Fatigue at sea is a problem which continues to affect shipowners and operators, their customers, the environment, insurers and most importantly, the people on board. Gard believes it is a problem which needs urgent attention. Whether it receives it remains to be seen.

1 Copies can be obtained from Gard. Alternatively, further information may be obtained by e-mailing the author at smithap@cardiff.ac.uk.
2 “Are we tired of hearing about fatigue-related casualties?” in Gard News issue No. 166.


Gard News 186, May/July 2007

Any comments to this article can be e-mailed to the Gard News Editor.

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