The issue of fatigue at sea is one that just will not go away. The industry has had more luck fighting pirates than it has tackling the problems of lack of sleep, stress and exhaustion. So what can be done to tackle fatigue and how?
Fatigue is not some vague concept, it is a recognised and serious medical concern. It can be called different names, tiredness, exhaustion, lethargy, and listlessness. In essence though it is all about the physical and/or mental state of being tired and weak.
Although physical and mental fatigue are different, the two often exist together. It may seem obvious, but if a person is physically exhausted for long enough, they will also be mentally tired.
Fatigue, means a person cannot continue functioning at their normal levels of physical ability. Whereas mental fatigue means that someone would not be able to concentrate properly.
However, it should be remembered that fatigue is a symptom, it is a sign that something is going on which is damaging the physical and mental wellbeing of the sufferer. At sea this is likely to be over work, lack of sleep with a sprinkling of loneliness, isolation and perhaps even depression thrown in.
So we have two different forms of fatigue – one affecting the body, the other the mind. For seafarers each bring their own problems and challenges. Working onboard ship brings physical demands, and being tired can lead to slips, trips and falls, for instance.
While for officers much of the job is about awareness, concentration and making good decisions. The ability to do these is eroded massively by fatigue. Concentrating on things become harder and this is when accidents can happen.
When symptoms are severe the sufferer might not want to get out of bed and perform his/her daily activities. But it is not just some form of laziness – mental fatigue may be life threatening, especially when the sufferer has to perform some tasks, such as navigating a vessel or operating engine machinery.
So it needs to be given the respect it deserves, and the cause underlying the symptoms need to be addressed. Those with little stress and sufficient rest are less likely to be fatigued – so it does not need a doctor to suggest that life onboard should be about managing the balancing act between work, rest and recreation.
The possible causes of fatigue are virtually endless. It seems that tiredness is a very potent way for the body and mind to try and get the message that something is wrong through to even the most stubborn person.
So it follows that there are many different causes – but for a seafarer perhaps the most common include:
A certain amount of stress can invigorate us, but when it passes over a tipping point and stress levels become excessive, they can easily cause fatigue.
Stress and worry are two emotions that commonly cause tiredness. Stress can reach a point in which the sufferer flounders and is “unable to see the light at the end of the tunnel”, which leads them towards despair. Despair is draining, and will eventually cause fatigue if it is present for long enough. Not being in control over a situation can be frustrating, annoying, and very tiring.
Being away from home, working hard, having to deal with difficult situations, the dangers of the sea, and of potentially uncertainty over when seafarers may get home. All these can be draining, and cause fatigue.
There are many medical reasons that seafarers may become fatigued. With an aging work force and with concerns over health issues at sea, then there can be issues such as kidney and liver disease, electrolyte problems, diabetes, hypothyroidism, anaemia.
All can play a role, and seafarers should be medically screened before going to sea or being employed. Screening for such problems is important and can be a life saver.
Shift patterns at sea can cause problems sleeping – even the normal 4 on, 8 off. However this can be heightened dramatically if work demands increase. The 60n-6off is particularly hard for people to cope with.
If the demands of the vessel then throw in a few cargo watches or mooring stations, then the sleep patterns can become extremely confused and messed up. There can also be weather issues – if a ship is bouncing around for days at a time, then this can have a real effect.
The effect of diet on the body can have massive implications for fatigue. Health and wellbeing rest on a good, healthy diet. So it is important that meals are healthy and nutritious and contain the vitamins and minerals that are needed.
Another problem at sea can be consumption of too many caffeinated drinks. Tea and coffee are extremely important parts of life at sea – and since the demise of smoking and alcohol, having a hot drink is an important relaxation ritual for many at sea. However, these may make it harder to get to sleep, or stay asleep, especially if consumed close to bedtime.
Many industry bodies and much research have long warned about fatigue. A recent report by the U.K. Confidential Reporting Programme for Aviation and Maritime (CHIRP) stressed that one area that appears to be difficult to address is seafarer’s fatigue management.
They believe that safe manning should take into account the minimisation of fatigue, but they constantly see malpractice; therefore at times of high work load due to operational requirements, this number is not sufficient to manage the risks associated with fatigue in seafarers.
Mind numbing routines of eat, sleep, watch… for months and months can wear down anyone, and lead to the type of inattentiveness that goes with the transitions from Active Operator to ‘machine minder’. The result of fatigue is impaired performance and diminished alertness. These could have a significant impact on shipboard operations and personal safety.
So it is vital that fatigue is addressed – that the symptoms are understood and the root causes addressed. It is not enough to think of this as simply a “sleep” issue, there is so much more to consider. A proper process for managing fatigue will take in all factors – work, contact with home, shore leave, diet, exercise…as well as rest.
What do you think? Have you suffered from fatigue? Does the shipping industry do enough to counter it? Write to us if you feel like it.