Protecting the ship from the inside

Inevitable in the seafaring profession, effective measures must be taken to combat fatigue in the workplace

Originally published by Seafarer Asia Security and Welfare Issue

Pogs!” yelled my chief officer, calling me by my nickname as I tried to recover my senses after hearing the screams of a fellow shipmate. “Yung medic box!”

I was trying to be as alert as I could while changing our ship crane’s cable. It was a little after midnight, a few hours away from my next watch, and I hadn’t slept yet. We had to immediately change cables to finish loading operations before a new ship docked. It was the second day that my mates and I had less than six hours of sleep. Despite the freezing cold that would’ve normally kept me awake, I felt like at any moment, I would fall into the thick snow that blanketed our main deck, and doze off.

A shot of adrenaline finally jolted me awake when I realized that my shipmate’s hand was caught in the crane. It was unfortunate because there he was, about to
disembark, and fatigue had taken a toll on him in a very bad way.

Not your usual mind over matter

Fatigue is not something a cup of coffee can easily reverse. According to Dr. Michelle Grech, head of the Human Safety Section, Ship Safety, of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), seafarers under fatigue not only  exhibit slower reaction time and less vigilance, they also suffer  memory lapses, complacency, and demotivation. “People’s judgments are gravely affected during chronic sleep loss, and this makes fatigue an occupational, health, and safety concern that can lead to commercial, public, and environment issues,” she writes in a study titled “A case for adopting fatigue risk management system at sea.”

There are many causes of fatigue. Work-related factors include long work hours, prolonged periods of physical and mental activity, insufficient sleep, excessive stress or a combination of all these factors.

Fatigue onboard has contributed to numerous maritime disasters, including the infamous oil spill of 1989 brought by the grounding of Exxon Valdez, the worst maritime environmental disaster in the last century. It opened many alleys of discussion regarding maritime safety and the development of the IMO guidelines on fatigue in 2001.

Facing Fatigue

Employers have a duty to take all measures to ensure that employees are safe at work, and fatigue is a workplace hazard that they must manage.

Seeing the problems imposed by fatigue to seafarers, AMSA is pushing for a Fatigue Risk Management System (FRMS) onboard to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which offers a proactive and flexible approach to reduce risks of fatigue. AMSA drafted a paper last July 2014, aiming to revise the current IMO fatigue guidelines. It is currently being reviewed by industry decision makers.

On IMO’s end, it was agreed upon that the review of the guideline of fatigue should have a holistic approach, the impact of fatigue at all levels (including all stakeholders), and the outcome should provide practical tools for fatigue management.

Fighting fatigue

According to Dr. Grech, fatigue cannot always be avoided, but Is manageable.

Australia’s Code of Practice states that sleep is the only effective long-term strategy to prevent and manage fatigue. While tired muscles can recover with rest, the brain can only recover with sleep. The most beneficial sleep is a good night’s sleep taken in a single continues period.

The International Labor Organization (ILO)’s Maritime Labor Convention (MLC) requires a minimum rest of 10 hours per 24-hour period.

Keeping a healthy diet is also important. Many companies keep strict alcohol policies that limit or prohibit consumption of alcohol. Having a blood alcohol level of 0.1 is equivalent to being awake for 20 hours (12 to 36 oz. of beer, depending on one’s body weight) and through all means should be avoided in a workplace where fatigue is imminent.

Dr. Grech adds that five to six hours of sleep at night is not enough for an average person to function normally. In fact, studies show that many people don’t even realize they are under fatigue, and their abilities and judgment are already impaired.

Many modern seafarers spend majority of their downtime in front of their computers, tablets, and cellphones, watching movies, playing games, or reconnecting with their family through social media. While these activities are already time consuming, it must be noted that these electronic gadget’s display screens emit a blue light that suppresses melatonin, a hormone that induces drowsiness. To minimize this, some screen filters and electronic applications have been developed to automatically adjust display color temperatures depending on the time of the day (twilight, f.lux for computers, etc.)

Maritime perils are inevitable; something seafarers accept as part of their lives once they sign their contract and get deployed. International governing bodies continue to investigate, research and enact new policies, and construct evasive measures and sturdier ships to diminish the possibilities of maritime disasters –be it pollution, collision, piracy, or even natural disasters.

But it shouldn’t be neglected that many of this maritime disasters are brought on by human error. And no matter how much a ship is protected from the outside, it will definitely fall apart if unprotected from the inside.



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