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Health and safety

Further damning findings on seafarer fatigue

17 June 2024

A new report from World Maritime University, funded by the ITF Seafarers' Trust, has once again demonstrated the terrible working hours and fatigue that seafarers are subjected to by their employers. Rob Coston spoke to seafarer welfare champion Katie Higginbottom about the results

The World Maritime University report Quantifying an Inconvenient Truth is a much-needed follow up to the 2021 study A Culture of Adjustment – a document that was controversial with industry because it revealed how much shipping companies depend upon seafarers working excessive hours, enduring fatigue and falsifying their hours of works and rests to function.

'Back in 2021, we commissioned World Maritime University to do a kind of pilot study on fatigue with the aim of trying to address the thorny issue of minimum safe manning,' says Katie Higginbottom, head of the ITF Seafarers' Trust. 'Previously we had never really got anywhere, as there's always complete resistance to even looking at formulations of manning, let alone the revolutionary idea of having more people onboard.

Watch the full interview here

'This study was then published as the Culture of Adjustment report, which we thought was a really strong piece of academic research as part of our remit to address seafarer welfare.'

What did the original report show? 'The fact that the whole industry conspires to adjust records in order to comply with hours of work and hours of rest, and everyone kind of knows it – the seafarers know it because they have to do it, the industry knows, port state control knows. But nobody's completely responsible for it and there are built-in incentives for people to go along with this culture, because the consequences of not going along with it are much more onerous and difficult than just sort of adjusting things, especially for the seafarers.'

'However, although that piece of research was really strong, it had a lot of pushback from those in the industry who said, "Well, it's not a sufficient sample, there's not enough data there to go on." So Quantifying an Inconvenient Truth is a three-year project which provides the quantitative ballast to back up the findings of A Culture of Adjustment.'

Damning evidence

The results of the new report are hard to dispute. Rather than being interview-based like the previous study, it is survey-based, with over 9,000 responses, over 6,000 of which contain validated and usable data. 'Relative to the size of the sector, it's much more than is required for serious research. It's solid and pretty representative,' says Ms Higginbottom. The respondents came from a good range of nationalities, ranks, experience levels and ship types.

'The headline findings are shocking, but utterly unsurprising,' she continues. 'The average working week of a seafarer is about 75 hours and that's been completely normalised in the shipping industry. Almost 90% have no weekly day off. Seafarers are telling us about the kind of adjustments they are having to make.

'There's a lot of conversations at the moment around the kinds of digital changes coming in. Maybe that can be part of the answer, if it's thought about in the right way that makes automation a tool for those operating vessels rather than an excuse to get rid of seafarers.

Key findings

Long hours

  • The average working hours for respondents was 11.5 hours out of 24 hours
  • Only 7.3% worked for 8 hours or less
  • 8.5% of respondents reported working beyond 14 hours

Lack of sleep

  • Seafarers reported 7 hours of sleep per 24-hour period on average, but 37.5% indicating sleeping 6 hours or less

No rest

  • Only 10.4% of respondents reported having a full day off each week while onboard
  • 28.1% of respondents indicated resting less than 10 hours per day contravening rest hours regulations outlined in MLC, 2006

Excessive work

  • Seafarers ranked workload as the most serious cause of fatigue
    88.3% admitted to exceeding the working time limits at least once a month
  • 16.5% of respondents reported exceeding limits more than ten times per month

Adjusting records

  • 64.3% reported adjusting their work/rest records
  • 80.2% said adjustments was to avoid any findings during inspections
  • 75% said adjustments were made to avoid problems with the shipping company
  • 50.3% reported notifying their company of non-compliance with work and rest hours. However, 46.7% of these seafarers received no response

Lack of faith

  • 93.4% agreed that fatigue is the most common safety-related challenge onboard
  • Nearly half of seafarers questioned the effectiveness of the current regulations in addressing fatigue

'The other thing that's interesting about the report is that – alongside the new data collected through the surveys – the researchers have put extracts from previous research to show that this is just reaffirming what's been said over the decades, and that nothing's happened. We've allowed it to become normal, that seafarers have to work excessively long hours, and that's just an operational aspect of being at sea – but the majority of the population that benefits from seafarers working invisibly wouldn't accept those kind of working hours. We need to get serious about it.'

Futuristic fix?

Addressing this issue will require a collaborative effort from all stakeholders, according to Ms Higginbottom. 'What we really want is for the industry to recognise that it is an issue, that it isn't acceptable, and then I think we need stakeholder collaboration and cooperation to look at practical approaches to enforcing the existing regulations. We need to be working together with the P&I clubs, with the industry, with port state control, with all of the groups that have a role to play,' she said, emphasising that while many in the industry have been concerned for years about fatigue, no institution acting alone has the power to fix a culture that is so embedded across the entire industry.

Seafarers may also begin to have more leverage on this issue, as the industry grapples with a mounting recruitment and retention crisis. Companies may need to address seafarer welfare and working conditions to attract seafarers as cheap labour begins to dry up – with respondents to the survey also largely agreeing that the root of the problem is low crewing levels. Having more seafarers onboard would go a long way towards fixing things, alongside better regulation, work from companies to address seafarer concerns on hours of work and rest, and proper enforcement by authorities.

In addition, new technology and greater automation presents a potential solution but also a threat, unless it is used properly – something that Nautilus will be campaigning on over the next four years as part of its work towards a Just Transition for members as the industry decarbonises. Respondents to the surveys thought that technological changes in the industry so far have largely made the problem worse.

'There's a lot of conversations at the moment around the kinds of digital changes coming in, and if they're going to save workload,' Ms Higginbottom says. 'Maybe that can be part of the answer, if it's thought about in the right way that makes automation a tool for those operating vessels rather than an excuse to get rid of seafarers.'

Read the full report here.


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