Crew fatigue is a critical issue

Dr Michele Grech, AMSA. Credit: AMSA

AMSA has dedicated its time and resources into investigating fatigue at sea and the impact on safety culture . Tackling fatigue is even more vital amid COVID-19

In the last decade, fatigue has become a major safety concern in the shipping industry, contributing to serious maritime accidents and impacting seafarers’ short- and long-term performance and health.

I am in a unique position of understanding fatigue from a scientific and practical angle. Before I joined the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) in 2013, I had built up 15 years of experience conducting applied research on fatigue at sea and more than 20 years of experience in the industry.

This informed my work at AMSA, where I took on the challenge of revising the International Maritime Organization (IMO) guidelines on fatigue, led and developed by Australia in collaboration with other member states, and submitted to the IMO in 2016. That document took a contemporary approach to fatigue risk management, using peer-reviewed scientific literature and input from subject matter experts from around the world.

A correspondence group of 33 countries and 11 organisations was created to work on this project. Fast forward to 2018, a revised set of IMO guidelines on fatigue was approved for release at the 100th session of the Maritime Safety Committee.

In the same year, AMSA completed the first major study of safety culture in the maritime industry in Australia. More than 1,000 seafarers were surveyed and the findings recorded 20% of them experienced chronic fatigue.
Our research also highlighted that there was a lack of fatigue management in practice in the maritime industry.

We have created simple and usable guidelines to help close this gap, with evidence-based research and practical recommendations to address fatigue among seafarers. The aim is to ensure seafarers, companies, and other relevant stakeholders are aware that these guidelines are available for use.

There is no doubt that these revised guidelines, especially the need to incorporate fatigue risk management, will test the maritime industry’s resolve in reducing the risks when at sea.

An important and challenging element is for the industry to have in-depth knowledge and understanding of fatigue. This will ensure the risks associated with fatigue are being managed appropriately. As fatigue is under-reported, it is difficult to know if it is getting better or worse over time. That is why reporting is so important and why shipping companies need to have established pathways for seafarers to report fatigue-related issues.

Shipping companies must also have processes for ensuring that lessons are learnt to prevent similar incidents from occurring again. In the maritime industry, a fatigue management system that continuously monitors and manages the risk of fatigue is the gold standard and it should be discussed with the seafarers, incorporated into a ship’s safety management system (SMS), and implemented effectively.

Shipping companies need to take a holistic approach to managing and reducing the risk of fatigue at sea. This is even more critical amid the COVID-19 pandemic where a seafarer’s contract may have been extended and, as a result, they are spending more time at sea than originally planned. Vessel operators should be identifying potential risks around crewing difficulties and addressing these in SMS documentation. Now is the time for shipping companies to step up and take care of the physical and mental wellbeing of their seafarers.