Fatigue at sea is one problem that seemingly will just not go away. How does fatigue work and what does it mean to performance and safety. What about chugging down on energy drinks? Does that work?
Speaking at the Crew Connect conference in Manila recently, Captain Kuba Szymanski, secretary general of InterManager, shared the findings of a fatigue study conducted by the shipping industry.
The study, “Project MARTHA” is working to put together a Fatigue Risk Management System (FRMS) and to provide fatigue awareness training, fatigue prediction models, fatigue reporting systems and advise on corrective actions to take to minimise/eradicate fatigue incidents.
According to the findings of the project thus far. It appears that ship’s Masters suffer from fatigue and stress even more than their crew. They also found that fatigue can result in long term physical and mental health issues.
Another key finding was that motivation decreases over the length of the voyage. Alas the longer people spend at sea the harder it is to maintain performance levels – this is something that will translate directly to safety, so has a major impact on the industry.
MORE THAN TIRED
Why does life and work at sea cause fatigue and wreak havoc on sleep? Well it’s all about the natural patterns of the body. This is the “circadian rhythm” and it is a cycle that repeats itself about every 24 hours across animals and even plants. It keeps time roughly at the rate of about 24-hour – so we develop a daily pattern of needs and responses to keep us healthy.
The circadian rhythms, also called the “biological clock” or the “body clock”, of humans and other animals, regulate many bodily functions including feeding, sleeping, body temperature and hormone production. Adult humans of all ages have a circadian rhythm which averages 24 hours and 11 minutes.
Even 4 on-8 off watchkeeping patterns are tough on the body and mind. Humans are naturally programmed to operate on a routine schedule. This allows the body to know what to expect in terms of production of certain hormones. It does this to a pattern, and when the watchkeeper is asleep twice a day, or worse – doesn’t get any sleep, then this causes havoc.
When trapped into a cycle of watchkeeping and being awake at times it naturally feels should be sleep, then the body has difficulty knowing what to anticipate and when to produce those transmitters and neurochemicals for sleep and digestion and proper functioning of the human body. So there are problems stored up.
FIGHTING THE BODY
Watchkeepers have to combat their own bodies’ natural rest period while trying to remain alert and high functioning. Worryingly it doesn’t even matter if they get enough sleep during the daytime. According to experts, all the sleep in the world won’t make up for circadian misalignment.
That’s especially dangerous for watchkeepers’ whose very job requires them to be on high alert and make split-second, life-or-death decisions during the night. Sadly with the need to be on watch, the fact remains that seafarers have to deal with the effects of this age old problem.
Working against the natural sleep cycle causes such sleep disorders, as well as fatigue. Fatigue, in turn, worsens moods, decreases abilities and reflexes, and makes people more vulnerable to disease.
That resulting crankiness and warped perspective can interfere the ability to make sound decisions and manage people effectively, and can increase the frequency of negative encounters. That’s not a recipe for good decisions.
FIGHT FATIGUE INSTEAD
The very nature of watchkeeping means that fatigue is a common complaint, but what can you do to refill your body’s fuel tank when your energy levels sputter? There are some simple steps – but the most important thing is to look after yourself, but what can you do when you feel fatigue hit?
1. Rule out health problems: Fatigue is a common symptom of many illnesses, including diabetes, heart disease, and arthritis, amongst others. You need to rule out any such illnesses to be sure what is causing your problems. Even some medications can contribute to fatigue. Check what you are on and why.
2. Keep moving: It may seem counter intuitive, you are tired the last thing you will feel like doing is exercising. However, the body works in predictable ways and actually physical activity boosts energy levels.
3. Stretch it out: Again, you are tired – you don’t feel like doing anything but sleeping. If you can get a schedule or stretching exercises in place, this can really boost energy. So touch your toes and do some stretching when you get the chance.
4. Gulp it down: Dehydration sucks your energy and impairs physical performance, it also decreases alertness and concentration. So keep topping up on the water, you will feel the benefits.
5. Sleep when you can: A busy watch pattern can impact sleep – and this has a major effect on the body. A lack of sleep increases the risk of accidents and is one of the leading causes of fatigue. When the chance for sleep comes, grab it. Even power napping is good. Napping restores wakefulness and promotes performance and learning. A 10-minute nap is usually enough to boost energy. Don’t nap longer than 30 minutes, though.
6. Eat well: Eating a diet heavy with fish can really boost alertness. Omega-3 oils even in capsule form can translate into faster mental reaction times and leave people feeling more vigorous.
7. Lose Weight: Carting around those extra pounds drains vital energy. It also takes more fuel from other functions. Even losing a small amount of improves mood, vigour, and quality of life.
8. Eat more frequently: Some people may benefit by eating smaller meals more frequently during the day. This may help to steady your blood sugar level. So instead of 3 large meals, try 5 smaller ones. It could be just the boost your body needs.
9. Steer Clear of Energy Drinks: When a person uses energy drinks to compensate for lack of sleep can become dangerous. Caffeine cannot compensate for the mental and physical alertness promoted by sleep. In fact after the initial buzz, most people describe a crashing effect and they become more acutely aware of their mental and physical fatigue.
So take exercise and stretch, drink lots of water, grab a nap when you can, try eating better food and in smaller more frequent meals, and don’t go grabbing for the energy to give you wings, it us more likely to see you crash and burn.
Be honest with others about how you feel – don’t hide your fatigue, or your worries. All too often the macho approach is to carry on regardless. This can be dangerous – to the person and ultimately to the vessel. So be open about fatigue and do the right things to help. Stay safe.