Managing fatigue is everyone’s responsibility

Owners, masters and crew must take reasonable steps to ensure their vessel and fellow crew are safe – this includes managing the risks presented by fatigue in the workplace.

Involving crew in the management of fatigue is a critical part of this management process.

AMSA has produced a paper to assist in understanding the causes and consequences of fatigue to assist reducing safety hazards and improve health, wellbeing, and performance across the maritime industry.

What is fatigue?

Fatigue is a state of weariness. It can develop quickly – for example, if you are doing heavy lifting. It can also develop slowly – for example, if you lose an hour of sleep a few nights in a row.

Suffering from fatigue for a prolonged period of time is associated with serious health conditions like cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal disease, mental health issues and stress levels.

Generally, people need between 7-9 hours of sleep per night to perform adequately and effectively. Poor quality sleep is when sleep is disturbed by things like diet, fitness, light, noise, motion, alcohol, drugs or stress.

Fatigue can also accumulate when you do not get extra sleep to make up for lost sleep, which is sometimes referred to as a ‘sleep debt’.

A survey of more than 1000 crew working across a wide range of commercial vessels in Australia found a concerning knowledge gap when it came to identifying and managing fatigue.

  • One in three began work on a vessel already in a fatigued state
  • 40% had less than six hours of sleep in any given 24-hour period
  • Participants struggled to identify lesser-known behavioural signs of fatigue like slurred speech and risk taking
  • 50% had not received any fatigue management training or guidance.

What happens when you are fatigued?

Fatigued crew are very likely to make mistakes, putting themselves and others at risk.

Some of the tell-tale signs of fatigue are:

  • Physical: Inability to stay awake (head nodding, microsleeps or falling asleep involuntarily), difficulty with hand-eye coordination, slurred or garbled speech, dropping objects like tools or parts, digestion problems.
  • Cognitive: Focusing on trivial problems and neglecting important ones, slow or no response to abnormal or emergency situations, lapses of attention, poor judgement of distance, speed and time, forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating and thinking clearly.
  • Behavioural: Decreased tolerance and/or anti-social behaviour, irregular mood changes, ignoring normal checks and procedures, increasing mistakes and carelessness.

Managing fatigue

It is recommended owners work with crew to examine what a typical 24-hour period looks like for them, factoring in both:

  • time spent working on a vessel and
  • time spent on other activities like commuting and being at home.

Implement short rest breaks during operations, rotating activities that crew have been assigned (where appropriate) and creating opportunities for ‘strategic napping’.

Note: Research shows that naps as short as 10/15 minutes can deliver measurable benefits and help maintain performance while staving off fatigue.

Help them identify a ‘window for sleep’, where they can have a minimum guaranteed seven hours of quality, uninterrupted sleep.

If possible, avoid scheduling critical operations between the hours of 3am-6am and 3pm-5pm, when crew are most likely to be drowsy or have an urge to sleep. If that’s not possible due to the nature of your operation, ensure other mitigation strategies are in place. You’ll find more on this in the link below.

The maritime work environment is stressful on crew and can make fatigue from lack of sleep worse. Common environmental stressors on crew are cold, vibration, heat, noise and vessel motion.

The impacts of a crew member’s lifestyle and home demands must be factored into an holistic approach to fatigue management.

Lifestyle factors and home demands may not be within the strict control of a commercial vessel owner or operator, but that doesn’t negate the need to increase awareness of the benefits that a healthy lifestyle and supportive home environment can have on increasing a crew member’s resilience against fatigue. Where it can’t be controlled, it should be factored into operational planning.

You’ll find more information in AMSA’s fatigue guidance paper here.