Banishing Maritime Fatigue

Because I’ve lamented regulatory paralysis in Washington, D.C., on many occasions, it’s a relief to cheer a federal safety program that is winning over an industry not by fiat, but by the power of a great idea. The U.S. Coast Guard’s Crew Endurance Management System (CEMS) expects to have 2,000 trained coaches in place by the end of this year and shows no sign of slowing down. What CEMS does is use our scientific knowledge of fatigue to reduce risk factors and boost crew members’ endurance.

This requires changing the working environment aboard ships in many ways, such as light-proofing sleeping berths, installing exercise equipment, improving air filtration and air conditioning systems, limiting noise, changing work and sleep schedules, and adding healthy foods to the menu. Every change is decided by the company involved; they’re encouraged to establish a Crew Endurance Working Group that develops and implements a Crew Endurance Plan. This is where the coaches come in.

“Our goal is to have at least one coach on each vessel—not just the international vessels—because the coach plays such a vital role in the proper implementation of CEMS,” said Lt. Cmdr. Vivianne Louie, program leader of CEMS. “Because CEMS is a relatively new program, our primary goals are to reach out to the different sectors within the industry and to continue providing guidance and direction for proper program implementation.”

The program’s quarterly newsletters track its fast growth. By January 2007, 110 companies were participating with at least one trained coach apiece, with four companies having at least 100 coaches. Louie said many operators on inland rivers use CEMS because of the American Waterways Operators’ strong support. “We’ve also gained traction with the Gulf Coast, harbor operations, and the coastal fleet,” she said. “We are currently working with other organizations, such as the Ship Operations Cooperative Program, to develop marketing and training tools to reach out to the ‘blue water,’ or deep sea sector. We have also slightly tailored the program to accommodate commercial fishing vessel operators.”

You can read an excellent November 2006 study of fatigue among seafarers on SOCP’s site. Written by Cardiff University researchers, the study indicates seamen with high levels of fatigue are more likely to make frequent cognitive errors. Forty-eight percent of the respondents in the study said they believed their working hours sometimes presented a danger to their personal safety, while 37 percent said their work hours sometimes placed their ship’s safe operation in danger.

Fatigue is a clear and present danger in many industries and occupations. By changing the maritime industry’s approach, CEMS is showing the rest of us how to defeat it.

This article originally appeared in the December 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Jerry Laws is Editor of Occupational Health & Safety magazine, which is owned by 1105 Media Inc.

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