The continued safety risks of crew fatigue

USS John McCain after collision with Alnic MC. Credit: US Navy

 

In June 2017 Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Fitzgerald collided with container ship Alnic MC in open water to the south of Tokyo, and in August USS John McCain of the same class collided with a slow moving tanker, ACX Crystal off Singapore.

 

The accidents killed 17 crew members and the two deadly collisions led to a deep internal investigation in the US Navy, whose report, released in early November 2017, concluded that the collisions resulted from widespread failures by the crew and commanders, who didn’t recognise and respond to unfolding emergencies quickly. It also recognised that overwork and stress, with insufficient rest, were major contributing factors.

 

A US Navy review panel concluded that the high-tempo operations of both vessels, which were both in the 7th Fleet, had eroded readiness slowly and “insidiously” to the point that slim safety margins became normal. The report recommended 60 improvements ranging from improved training on seamanship, navigation, and the use of ship equipment, to more basic changes to increase sleep and stress management for sailors. These findings may be unsurprising for those in the merchant navy. They echo the findings and recommendations from the 2017 Project Martha report, a three-year study into seafarer fatigue, which revealed how longer journeys were causing physical and mental fatigue in seafarers to rise, particularly among masters and watchkeepers.

 

In June 2017, John Pendleton, director of defence force structure and readiness at the US Government Accountability Office, linked training and fatigue with concerns around the operational tempo of the US Navy Pacific Fleet. It transpired that the periods between deployments had become shorter since 2015; so short, in fact, that the slots reserved for maintenance and crew training (thus, proper down-time) were being compromised. 

 

Onboard culture

Onboard culture is equally to blame. The pace of life on board any warship is intense when at sea but reports pointed to an underlying culture in the US Navy’s surface fleet that subjects young officers to a breakneck pace of activity. The result, according to the US Naval Institute, is “a lack of sleep is seen in the end as a badge of honour rather than a major factor in operational risks”. No wonder the crews were “unable to follow the most basic lookout procedures and lack understanding of the shipping code”.

 

What was not so heavily reported was that these were not the only two incidents in the US 7th Fleet in 2017. Cruiser USS Antietam ran aground in Tokyo Bay in January that year and, in May, USS Lake Champlin collided with a South Korean fishing boat. There were no fatalities in either of those incidents and it was only after the USS Fitzgerald’s collision in June that the top-level review began.

 

The risk is everywhere

The US Navy was subject to heightened scrutiny in the last months of 2017, but that should not distract from the fact that all types of vessel are subject to the dangers of crew fatigue. The 1989 grounding of Exxon Valdezcaused the release of 42 million litres of crude oil; one of the largest oil spills in history. The US National Transportation Safety Board determined that the probable causes included “the failure of the third mate to manoeuvre the vessel properly because of fatigue and excessive workload” and “the failure of the Exxon Shipping Company to provide a fit master and a rested and sufficient crew for Exxon Valdez”.

 

While such significant accidents have had crew fatigue noted as a major contributing factor, the shipping industry appeared to do little to tackle the issue. There have therefore continued to be reports of accidents with fatigue at their core. In October 2005, for example, 16 years after Exxon Valdez, a fatigued master, alone and asleep on the bridge of his ship, caused the grounding of a British-registered bulker in the Baltic Sea, according to the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) report. On a voyage from Hamburg to Klaipeda, 2,777 dwt Lerrix was being monitored by Warnemunde VTS when it failed to alter course and, despite efforts to contact the ship, it was seen to run aground. The master, who had permitted the lookout to leave the bridge, had fallen asleep in the pilot chair. It led the MAIB to recommend to the owners and the UK Chamber of Shipping the importance of fatigue related issues, safe lookout, the inappropriate use of personal electronic equipment, and closer scrutiny of hours of rest worksheets.

 

What exists to help?

The Maritime Labour Convention, signed in 2006 and effective in 2013, gives very clear direction on the amount of rest that seafarers should have during a 24-hour period and over a week. The maximum hours of work should not exceed 14 in any 24-hour period and 72 hours in any seven-day period. In setting the standards, signatories are directed to take account of the danger posed by the fatigue of seafarers, especially those whose duties involve navigational safety and the safe and secure operation of the ship. 

Although the convention has not been ratified worldwide, it has a widespread effect because vessels from non-signatory states that attempt to enter ports of signatory states may face arrest and penalties for non-compliance.

 

Increasing focus on crew wellbeing is helping to turn the shipping industry’s attention to fatigue. The International Maritime Organization’s (IMO’s)Human Element Training and Watchkeeping (HTW) subcommittee met in 2017 to undertake a comprehensive review of the IMO’s guidelines on fatigue mitigation and management (MSC/Circ.1014), prompted in part by the findings from Project Martha.

The revised guidelines include a new module that seeks to address the operational demands placed on ships and seafarers, such as inspections, surveys, and audits, as well as reporting and information requests from other stakeholders. However, the changes have yet to be ratified because of a lack of consensus, in part, down to concerns about including a fatigue risk management system that is practical for watchkeeping and with limited number of crew members available. The changes will be further considered at the next session of the HTW in July.

 

Meanwhile, the Sailors’ Society’s Wellness at Sea conference took place in London on 16 March this year, with industry figures talking about crew wellness and how this has an impact on the health of the ship. Stuart Rivers, chief executive officer of the Sailors’ Society, said, “Countless investigations into disasters at sea, including the EL Faro tragedy, have proven that anxiety and fatigue can take a terrible toll on the decision-making abilities of the crew”.

 

Is there a way ahead?

Whether operating a warship, container ship, oil tanker, or small ferry, the dangers of working at sea are the same. The environment is hazardous, stressful, and unnatural. Workloads, as in non-sea life, are increasing but, unlike non-sea life, mariners have no escape for the weeks and months of a voyage.

Notwithstanding inquiries, directives, recommendations, and conferences, accidents at sea continue to happen as a result of seafarer fatigue. Only by recognising this as a serious health and safety issue, taking a more robust approach to regulation and manning, and learning from best practice in other comparable industries – BP’s inquiry into the Deepwater Horizon disaster is a case in point – will the risk start to diminish. 

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