17 July 2009

You don't get much Sleep at Sea

Fatigue has become a major issue in the shipping industry, and it has been a contributory factor in too many maritime accidents. Some of them were very serious and have cost lives, or done major damage to the environment.

The European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) reported that 754 vessels were involved in 670 accidents last year alone, and 82 seafarers lost their lives as a result.

There is almost no day in the year without some shipping accident somewhere on this planet. Fortunately the majority of them are minor incidents that never make the headlines. But those who do are usually shocking, and would often have been avoidable.

The European Commission has now launched a major research project to study the effects of fatigue on seafarers.

This research will take two-and-a-half years to complete and cost € 4 million, a rather small sum I would think, if one keeps in mind how large the costs of major shipping accidents are.
Scientists and maritime experts will now study in detail the work and rest patterns of deck officers, engineers and all other members of ships' crews, concentrating in particular on watch-keeping, which has become an increasing concern.

Having spent many years at sea myself, I know only too well that this is a very important and crucial element. Most naval vessels operate a two-watch system, which means that at any given time about half of the crew is on duty - running the ship and operating all its departments and elements - while the other half is off duty, with free time for rest and recreation.
Every four hours they change roles (with the exception of two 'dog watches' in the late afternoon and early evening, which last only two hours and have the purpose to prevent the same people from being on duty always at the same hours each day).

This means that the longest period of uninterrupted sleep any crew member in a naval vessel at sea can enjoy is about 3 1/2 hours. In comparison, most people on dry land have - and need - at least 8 hours.
So the matter of tiredness, often combined with lack of attention and concentration deficit, is a well-known problem at sea. And the longer a ship or vessel is away from a port, the more fatigue has been identified as a major safety issue.

Many civilian vessels and merchant ships do not (or no longer) operate two-watch systems with four-hour-long watches. They have adopted more sleep-friendly systems, such as watches of six or even eight hours duration, especially on very large vessels like the modern super tankers. This sounds almost like a working day on shore, except that being at sea is a lot more demanding than sitting in an office on dry land. (Being at sea - a constantly moving surface - demands an extra 2000 calories of energy in 24 hours from every person, regardless what kind of work is done.)

Seafaring has also other special elements not found in land-based jobs. Crews work and rest in the same space, which is usually quite small. And being at sea also limits the amount of possible activities a person can have. There is a considerable strain on every sailor's social life, which also has affects on people's mental and emotional conditions.

There are increasing demands from trade unions and safety organisations that the problems created by fatigue and long watch duties must be addressed.
The increasing concerns about safety have now brought ship owners, trade unions, marine insurance companies and safety organisations throughout Europe together into a joint venture operation. They all are supporting the 30-month-long EU research project, and one can only hope that the findings will lead to improvements and eventually enable modern seafarers to live a more 'normal' life than hundreds of generations of sailors before them.

I never slept more than 3 1/2 hours at one time when I was at sea (often even less) and rarely managed to have more than one spell of sleep within 24 hours (being first in charge of signals and later executive officer and captain). Somehow I was lucky that it did not affect me in a negative way. In fact, even now - many years after I retired from the Navy - I sleep not more than 3 or 4 hours each night. Over all the years at sea my biological clock got set to that, and my body is used to it. For me it is rather beneficial, giving me more time than most people have, time to do things like writing this weblog.

But I also know people, among them a good friend of many years, who found service at sea extremely difficult. They were often tired, fatigued and lacked concentration, and some of them even developed further illnesses due to lack of energy reserves.

71% of our planet is covered by oceans and seas, and shipping is still the most important kind of mass transport in the world. Until engineers develop a way to sail ships automatically, by remote control and without the need for a crew, there will always be seafarers.
Although their number is now much smaller than it was during earlier centuries, when we had huge fleets under sails, seafarers are still a large and important group of people. We depend on them and their ships for many of our daily supplies (which is even more important for an island nation like Ireland). So we should perhaps take a little more notice of the seafaring community, and I am glad that the EU is doing it with the research into fatigue at sea.

The Emerald Islander

1 comment:

Jenny said...

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Have a great week!

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