Sleepwalking into a crisis – union’s warning over seafarer fatigue

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Nautilus International, the maritime professional’s trade union, is warning the shipping industry to be vigilant and alert to the dangers associated with fatigue amongst seafarers after research found it can result in long term physical and mental health issues.

The comments from the union come after publication of findings by the $1.5m Martha project which examined the long-term effects of fatigue and tiredness at sea. It found that the quantity of sleep and individual motivation decreases in line with the length of a voyage, which has a direct impact on developing physical and mental health issues.

The study was carried out by researchers from universities in the UK, Denmark, Sweden and China. It drew on data gathered from almost 1,000 seafarers and included detailed analysis of fatigue level reports, sleep patterns and the psychological wellbeing of crew members gathered during voyages around the world. It also found that night watch-keepers get significantly less sleep than others onboard and masters suffer more stress and fatigue than their crews.

It followed on from an EU-funded Project Horizon sleepiness study on cognitive performance. Nautilus took part in the initiative along with 11 other industry and academic partners, leading to the development of an industry-first fatigue measurement toolkit.

Nautilus General Secretary Mark Dickinson said: “There seems to be a distinction between ship and shore when it comes to employee safety and duties of care. Whilst the working time directive dictates you can’t work more than 48 hours per week, there are growing numbers of seafarers working well over this with their employers not adhering to on-shore work legislation.

“Nautilus needs to continue to put pressure on the industry to push it into action. We have recently been focusing our efforts towards making sure the industry holds job security, employment conditions and pensions at the forefront of their priorities. Physical and mental fatigue can not only impact on an individual, but also on the vessel as a whole. It’s a very serious issue which must be addressed and measures taken for the issue to be alleviated.”

This call is the latest in Nautilus’s campaigning to improve working conditions for its members and seafarers in general. Last year, the union launched its Charter for Jobs at its UK branch conference. The manifesto sets out 10 pledges which will see the organisation to work closely with other organisations and the UK government to deliver decent work for British seafarers.