Seaman Fatigue: A Hidden Problem With Serious Consequences

Most Americans have experienced fatigue in the course of their work lives, such as trudging into work after a sleepless night or carrying life's worries into the workplace. Unfortunately, working while fatigued can be particularly dangerous for those who are in charge of the nation's most complex machinery like airplanes, trains and ships.

What is fatigue?

According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), fatigue is caused by poor quality sleep or insufficient sleep due primarily to a worker's living environment, off-duty personal choices and medical conditions. When maritime workers are not well-rested, it becomes difficult for them to operate machinery properly. Unfortunately, many individuals do not recognize that they are fatigued, or they think their fatigue does not affect their ability to work.

The NTSB believes that fatigue is one of the most important factors in determining the work-hours of employees that operate machinery, including marine vessels. It recommends that employers establish hours-of-service limits using data that accounts for human fatigue.

Seaman fatigue is a major concern of marine safety groups, as it regularly contributes to seaman injuries. The International Maritime Organization's Subcommittee on Standards of Training and Watchkeeping defines fatigue as a "degradation of human performance," including the impairment of a seaman's ability to make reasonable decisions and the slowing down of a seaman's physical and mental reflexes.

What causes seaman fatigue?

Ship design, scheduling and ship organization all contribute to seaman fatigue. In general, these factors affect a seaman's ability to get regular, quality sleep, stress levels and exposure to adverse environmental or psychological conditions. Factors that negatively contribute to seaman fatigue include:

  • Frequent changes to ship and crew assignments
  • Shift work which requires seamen to work alternating day/night shifts
  • Lack of standard operating procedures
  • Frequent port calls that require loading, unloading and navigating congested waters
  • Consecutive, long tours of duty
  • Lack of ship automation, requiring more attention from crew
  • Adverse environmental conditions like noise and vibration
How can seamen avoid fatigue?

Fortunately, it is possible for seaman to avoid fatigue, but most solutions involve employer action. Factors that can decrease seaman fatigue include:

  • Continuity of ship and crew assignments
  • Implementation of and training on standard operating procedures
  • Adequate time between port calls
  • Breaks between tours of duty
  • Adequate ship automation that requires less attention from crew
  • Control of ship noise and vibration

In addition to these factors, employers should allow seamen eight hours of rest after 13 hours of work in every 24-hour period and limit watches to six hours or less.

Who may be held liable for accidents caused by seaman fatigue?

The Jones Act outlines who may be held responsible for seamen injury or illness. The Jones Act requires employers to provide three no-fault benefits to seamen injured on the job: medical benefits, payment of unearned wages and a daily stipend until health is restored. Seamen are entitled to these benefits even when they are off-duty but still on the job.

In addition to these benefits, it is possible for seamen to sue their employers if their employer's negligence contributed to injury or illness, including fatigue. If you or a loved one has been injured while on a tour of duty, please contact an experienced maritime personal injury attorney to explore your legal options.

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