Crew Fatigue – Are We Really Addressing The Problem?

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June 7, 2011

“Watch-on, stay-on”; 3 months- on, 3 months-off; 28 days-on, 28 days-off: which system causes the greatest fatigue factor? What really is “the fatigue factor” and is the manning system an integral contri- bution to it? A great deal has been said about it lately and a number of accidents are being tagged with it as a contributing cause.

When speaking about materials, fatigue means increasing structural damage occurring through repetitive stressing of the material. We’ve all seen the results of wave action on the hull of a ship and resulting fractures and cracks that occur with time. And I am certain that we have all seen the same result with our crew
and ourselves during stressful voyages. Much has been written about the causes of crew fatigue fac-
tor but how can you measure it? Does everyone react the same way? What criteria are used to identify it? Are current regula- tions sufficiently specific pertaining to the potential for fatigue and how it is to be evaluated or mitigated against. Look at HE-Alert’s “Fatigue causes, effects, and mitigation” http://www. and tell me, honestly, if you could possibly implement all, or even most, of those suggestions on a working vessel. Don’t get me wrong, I agree with what they are saying (theory) but can’t see how it can be fully put into practise in the current environment (reality).

Does the current STCW go far enough in addressing fatigue? IMO’s MSC has created Guidelines on Fatigue and has commit- ted to introducing a new chapter in SOLAS dealing with crew fatigue “to introduce mandatory requirements and make verifi- cation possible.” The ISM Code introduces some safety man- agement requirements on ship owners, and the International Labour Organizations’ Maritime Labour Convention 2006 will address some of the factors dealing with fatigue when it comes into force. Will any of these and other guidelines currently in effect, provide a standard, international, and implementable system that we can use?

May I, at this point, suggest that money is one of the main factors contributing to crew fatigue? Crew sizes have been reduced while adding the multicultural and language dif- ferences of those smaller crews, administrative duties have ncreased, differing regulations from country to country exist, shore leave has been restricted, and pressure for quicker port turn-around times has been placed on crews. How can you have a rested crew under these conditions? One answer is to increase the size of the crew to what is actually required to deal with those circumstances. Ah, cries the owner: “I can’t be financially competitive if the crew size increases!” Ever the sea- lawyer, I ask, “why not, if all ship owners are placed under the same regulations?” The ship owner would not be paying the increased cost in the end anyway: you and I, as the product purchaser, will be paying because those costs will be passed on to the end user.

So, we face the dichotomy of being part of the problem (as purchasers who don’t want increased product prices) and also of having the potential to rectify some of the crew fatigue fac- tor (as the ship owner, operator, or crew). Don’t let this issue drop: new regulations may help but we, as mariners, must ultimately deal with the potential liability and responsibility when accidents occur.

This article was written by Captain Jim Calvesbert for the Council Of American Master Mariner’s newsletter Sidelights. The entire issue of sidelights magazine can be downloaded for free HERE.

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