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Fatigue: Another 'Inconvenient Truth'

20 May 2021

Seafarers' groups slam attack by shipowners on WMU research revealing systemic failures of reporting hours of work and rest. HELEN KELLY reports

Shipowners have mounted an extraordinary attack on a recent World Maritime University (WMU) report, which found that a systemic underreporting of work and rest hours has normalised fatigue among seafarers.

The 'Culture of Adjustment' report confirmed the outcome of earlier studies and what many in the industry already know, that the altering of records is commonplace and there has been a failure by all stakeholders – seafarers, shipowners, flag and port states – to address the issue.

Shipowners' representative Dr Dirk Max Johns claimed the report 'accused seafarers, shipowners, flag states and inspectors of being involved in systematic evasion, which amounted to organised crime'.

He mounted the unexpected provocation at the International Labour Organization (ILO) Special Tripartite Committee (STC) of the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), where he sought to discredit the research by claiming it was 'merely contract research' and funded by a trade union lobby group.

Dr Johns, who is the shipowner vice-chairperson of the STC, targeted WMU president Dr Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry for promoting 'wide-ranging allegations of normalised deviance’ in reporting hours of work and rest, which he said ‘were completely unfounded'.

He claimed that there were also serious issues regarding the methodology used for the study, based on interviews and study groups. Stating that 'researchers had basically spoken to those who had paid for the research'.

The attack ignored the diversity of the interviewees. As disclosed in the report, a total of 86 individuals participated in the research. The group of 20 seafarers represents 23% of the panel; port state control officers (PSCO) 24%; and other stakeholders, including shipping companies and trade organisations, 53%. Such a multi-stakeholder approach allows researchers to multiply data sources, enrich data sources, and cross-check information.

Ignoring this diversity of participants confirms an established 'culture of adjustment' and shows a tendency to neglect unpleasant feedback.

Alternative facts

Dr Johns further claimed: 'The starting point of the report was the under-reporting of hours of work and rest, which was assumed to be a fact.'

In fact, it was the International Shipping Federation (ISF) and International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) submission to STW/ISWG 2/8 in 2009 that called for proper record keeping: 'It will be more productive to adopt amendments that will encourage proper record keeping and help ensure enforcement of compliance with the detailed rest-hour requirements (such as adequate provision of compensatory rest in any seven day period in which the current "two-day" derogation rule is used). Changing the regime itself will not ensure compliance and neither will it prevent the inaccurate recording of hours of rest.'

Indeed, inaccurate recording of hours of rest has been reported for the last 15 years in qualitative and quantitative research. For example, quantitative evidence of large underreporting is available in Allen et al [2006], which established through a survey that 'only about a third (37.3%) of participants do not under-record their working hours'. After a survey, Simkuva et al [2016] concluded that 'only 31% say they never breach recording requirements'. Previous quantitative research confirms the prevalence of wrong reporting of rest/work hours (62.7% to 69% of seafarers declared underreporting
rest/work hours).

Some casualty reports confirmed the WMU's finding when they investigated hours of rest in-depth. For example, the US Coastguard (USCG) report of the Marine Board of Investigation into the steamship El Faro underlined fatigue, violation of standards, methods to adjust records, and limited attention to rest records in audits.

Additionally, the UK Marine Accident Investigation Board (MAIB) casualty investigation report into the Priscilla found hours of work and rest records suggested that the ABs were keeping night watches as an additional lookout when this was not the case.

Failure of diplomacy

Seafarer vice-chairperson and Nautilus general secretary Mark Dickinson expressed shock at the reaction of the shipowners' group and said that although the International Maritime Organization had established criteria for the setting of minimum safe levels of manning, many flag states ignored these. Following the most recent review of the guidance. Not one flag state had increased safe manning levels despite existing research pointing to the need to do so. 'Indeed, existing flag state regimes are competing to set lower manning requirements,' he said.

Research confirmed fatigue as a major cause of accidents at sea. 'Hours of work and rest must be addressed effectively. WMU should be applauded for the study and for speaking truth to power.'

He reminded the committee that seafarers often worked 91 or 98 hours a week, with derogations permitted under the STCW aggravating the situation.

The shipowner group was right to raise potential criminalisation regarding the failure to keep adequate records of hours of work and rest, he said, as there was also a culture of the adjustment of records to avoid paying seafarers overtime.

'ITF inspectors collect US$30 million in unpaid wages each year, one third of which is unpaid overtime hours or unpaid hours of work. Such staggering levels of cheating and criminality meant another appropriate title for the WMU study could have been "An Inconvenient Truth". Despite all the positive cooperation between stakeholders in the industry over the past year in response to the pandemic, there is still a tendency to sweep inconvenient truths under the carpet. That cannot continue.

'The ITF represents over one million seafarers and every single ITF affiliated seafarer's union attending the STC meeting confirmed that the findings of the WMU study were valid.' 


Flag state regimes are competing to set lower manning requirements

What is STC?

The Special Tripartite Committee (STC) was established by the governing body of the ILO to keep the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) under continuous review and propose amendments.

The STC is composed of two representatives of member governments which have ratified the convention, and the representatives of shipowners and seafarers appointed by the governing body after consultation with the Joint Maritime Commission (JMC).

Government representatives of members which have not yet ratified the convention may participate in the committee but have no right to vote on any matter dealt with in accordance with the convention.

The meeting was attended by 338 government, 43 shipowner and 32 seafarer representatives. Representatives of intergovernmental organisations and non-governmental international organisations, as well as interested parties, also attended the meeting.



The recommendations of the WMU Culture of Adjustment report are wide-ranging, but ultimately safe manning levels are at its core. It found a need to align the regulatory framework with operational conditions and for reliable research to be undertaken on fatigue. The study called for a re-examination of the thresholds set out in the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), 2006, and the STCW, and of the two-watch system.


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