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Seafarer fatigue: the weary weight of evidence

4 March 2024

Many studies of crew fatigue have come and gone over the years, but there is hope that a high-level review of this academic literature will now drive a genuine improvement in the lives of seafarers. Sarah Robinson reports

Nautilus is renewing its call for an end to 6 hours on/6 hours off watches after a UK government report said that the shift pattern is 'considered damaging to fatigue'.

The Department for Transport (DfT) research has also added weight to the international union campaign to ensure vessels have adequate crewing levels.

Titled Understanding seafarer roster patterns and fatigue on vessels, the research report was published in 2023 and presented to the Seafarers Hospital Society health conference in February 2024.

Its method was to gather evidence via a review of existing research and add to this by interviewing selected individuals from a range of roles in the shipping industry.

Focusing on roll-on/roll-off vessels (cargo and passenger), the researchers reviewed 124 relevant academic studies. They also carried out eight one-to-one interviews of their own and a roundtable discussion – which included representatives from Nautilus. The researchers said that they had purposely avoided interviewing serving seafarers in case they felt unable to speak freely about their working conditions, but serving seafarers will be involved in follow-up research.

A key aim was to 'establish the various types of seafarer roster and shift patterns and how they differ by route and operators, and the consequential impacts of different roster patterns on seafarer fatigue and welfare.' The expression 'roster patterns' was taken to mean something like tours of duty, e.g. four weeks away at sea followed by two at home. 'Shift patterns' refers to the hours of work and rest within a particular day.

The researchers also looked at the effect of low crewing levels, the quality of seafarers' rest, the reasoning behind various shift and roster patterns, and employers' efforts to mitigate fatigue.

Shift patterns

The most striking finding to emerge from the research was the impact of shift patterns on crew fatigue. The researchers found that most seafarers work 12 hours per day, usually in one of the following shift patterns:

  • 12 hours on/12 hours off
  • 6 hours on/6 hours off split shift

12 hours on/12 hours off seems to be quite popular with seafarers, perhaps because it allows for an extended period of continuous sleep more typical of someone's circadian rhythm at home. However, 6 hours on/6 hours off was considered the most fatiguing of the possible shift patterns.

One ex-seafarer interviewed by the researchers said: 'You don't get 8 hours' sleep, you're always chasing it.' A representative from a seafarers' charity added that 'on 6 hours on/6 hours off pattern, a worryingly large number of seafarers fall asleep on shift', and that '6 hours on, 6 hours off is utterly destructive and not sustainable. I'm amazed we're even still talking about it - it's impossible to survive for more than a couple of days.'

Roster patterns

The researchers were able to identify a trend in roster patterns from the literature. Shorter routes tend to be associated with shorter rosters such as one week on/one week off, as employers believe this is necessary to keep crew members fresh for intense work. This contrasts with operators' choice of shift patterns and crewing levels, where crew fatigue seems less of a consideration.

The report quotes an operator as saying: '[Roster design is] largely about the route for us, [and] how much intense activity [crew members] have during their time onboard. There is no comparison to the Dover Straits: it never stops, there is never a period off. Whereas on the longer crossings, you have times where all the passengers are in bed .... Therefore, there is some calmness [on board]. Now, we can have less people and stagger shifts…. It is easier when it's a longer crossing.'

Crewing levels

The literature review carried out by the DfT suggested that fatigue could be mitigated by having more crew members, which can allow for better sharing of workload and responsibility, and reduced working hours. 'Larger crews can also allow for a three-watch system,' the researchers pointed out, 'which has been demonstrated to improve sleep outcomes over two-watch systems.'

They added: 'Increasing crew numbers could provide improvements in generating a "culture of care" in the seafaring industry, although this would come at a financial cost to organisations to employ the extra staff. However, if the true costs of fatigued employees to operators were calculated, then the increased cost of employing additional workers might be more viable.'

Quality of sleep

Factors that were found to impact sleeping conditions included noise, movement, vibrations, light, temperature, quality of air, and air conditioning.

The researchers noted that it was useful to address these issues, but implied that focusing on sleep quality could be seen as an easy way out for employers who should be making some more fundamental changes. They said: 'Providing tools such as noise-cancelling headphones, air conditioning, window shades or eye masks may present a solution that is more affordable and easier to implement than organisational changes such as increasing crew numbers and reworking shift schedules.'

Next steps

Nautilus head of professional and technical David Appleton (left) and director of welfare and care Andrew Jones heard the presentation of the DfT fatigue research at the Seafarers Hospital Society conference in February 2024. Image: Nautilus International

Nautilus has welcomed the report for providing a high-quality evidence base for its campaigning and industrial negotiating work around fatigue. The Union is now helping to recruit participants for the next stage of the research, and any Nautilus members interested in taking part are encouraged to respond to the Loughborough University/DfT appeal for participants below.

Share your experiences of fatigue

Researchers from Loughborough University are carrying out the next stage of the crew fatigue research for the UK Department for Transport.

They will be examining seafarers’ experiences of sleepiness and fatigue, aiming to find out what might increase tiredness, the consequences for seafarers in different roles and how fatigue is managed at work. They are particularly interested in interviewing masters and bosuns as managers of other seafarers.

Participants will be interviewed for around 45 minutes either online or by phone. To register your interest or for more information please contact:

Sally Maynard
Wendy Jones
Adam Asmal


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