Paul Coley, MCA Assistant Director of Seafarers & Ships said: “Its been known for many years that tiredness caused by long working hours and low manning is dangerous to both ships and its crews. Shipping companies have been warned about the consequences of fatigue many times. This time it’s not just a warning. The MCA are determined to stamp out excess hours in UK waters and so significant breaches of the regulations will be reported to our enforcement unit and may result in prosecution.”
How’s that for a serious burst of cannon fire across the bow! On February 26th the U.K.’s Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA) published this bold press release making clear that it is tired of the same-old, same-old when it comes to the marine industry’s decades-long refusal to come to terms with the worldwide mariner fatigue problem. Any vessels calling on U.K. ports, regardless of their flag, will be subject to some real scrutiny. Amongst many other incidents, the grounding of the general cargo vessel Antari near Larne, Northern Ireland when the chief mate fell asleep at the wheel was a recent event that has spurred the MCA to get tough about this. Quoting from the MAIB report’s synopsis, “At 0321 on 29 June 2008 the general cargo vessel Antari grounded on the coast of Northern Ireland, while on passage from Corpach, Scotland to Ghent, Belgium. The officer of the watch had fallen asleep shortly after taking over the watch at midnight when the vessel was passing the peninsula of Kintyre (Scotland). With no-one awake on the bridge, the vessel continued on for over 3 hours, crossing the North Channel of the Irish Sea before grounding on a gently sloping beach about 7 miles north of Larne. The chief officer, who was the watchkeeper at the time of the grounding, worked a 6 hours on/6 hours off watchkeeping regime with the master. As has been demonstrated in many previous accidents, such a routine on vessels engaged in near coastal trade poses a serious risk of cumulative fatigue.“
Our own National Transportation Safety Board, too, has recently declared (yet again) that addressing this serious problem should be a national priority for all modes of transportation. It’s been a concern since the agencies creation in 1967 (43 years ago!) and has been on their Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements since they started it in 1990, 20 years ago. What the NTSB wants the Coast Guard to do is “Establish within 2 years scientifically based hours-of-service regulations that set limits on hours of service, provide predictable work and rest schedules, and consider circadian rhythms and human sleep and rest requirements.” That was back in June of 1999 and it would be exceptionally generous to say that the response to this from the Coast Guard and the industry has been merely slow. American mariners would probably drop dead of shock if we ever heard such strong words out of our own Coast Guard, let alone saw any real action taken. This refusal to act has resulted in the NTSB awarding the Coast Guard a big, fat F- for their “unacceptable response.”
So what’s the big deal? Sleep is. You’ve got to have it. Not only do you have to have it, but you must have enough of it and it must be quality sleep, on a consistent schedule without interruptions, if it is to serve it’s intended purpose of keeping crew members alert on watch and in decent overall health during their careers. Deliberate sleep deprivation, on the other hand, is often used very effectively as an interrogation technique or as a form of torture. The long-term health affects of sleep deprivation, from whatever the cause, can even be deadly (see Capt. Doug Pine’s post Sleep Apnea & The Professional Mariner for more on this).
Some people in our industry get this, some don’t. This isn’t due to stupidity or a lack of available information. It’s a conscious and deliberate mindset, the origins of which are mostly economic. For vessel crews to get enough rest there first has to be an adequate number of personnel on board to handle the routine workload (which, by its very nature, is variable or cyclical) during each of the (usual) two watches without ever relying on off-watch crew members, except in the rare cases of a true emergency, and the logistical realities of things like crew changes and resupplying the vessels with food and supplies must also be allowed for. It should surprise no one that people cost money.
This is viewed as an unwelcome and unnecessary “expense” by some vessel owners, and some of them will do whatever they can to get around it. Unless one of their overworked crews/undermanned vessels is involved in a high-profile marine accident involving major environmental destruction or loss of life (read: innocent passengers/bystanders/motorists/etc., not mariners) that draws sustained public and political interest they know that they’re very unlikely to suffer anything more than a modest fine, and even that is rare. The appropriateness of the 2-watch system for anything other than short periods of time is an even deeper question that no one wants to touch.
The competitive advantages gained by exploiting the near-total lack of enforcement of the regulations is significant and very attractive. No one can say, definitively, how deep this culturally-ingrained problem goes because the authorities have shown no interest in looking too closely at it. To do so, and then continuing to ignore it, would constitute gross negligence. One thing can be said with certainty: although it was happening even during the best of times, in these brutal economic conditions the incentive for cheating is stronger than ever. Deliberate under-manning is occurring. This puts intense pressure on all operators to do the same or risk losing work and possibly going under because of it. It’s a race to the bottom if it is allowed to go unchecked. A level playing field for everyone is needed and the lack of visible and meaningful enforcement makes this impossible to achieve. The job rests squarely on the shoulders of the U.S. Coast Guard.
Given what we already know, and have known for many decades, the fact that this subject is still being debated or ignored is both absurd and borderline criminal. The average layperson is often shocked to find out that the vast majority of unlicensed deckhands still have no strictly-defined legal protections regarding their work hours. It is perfectly legal as things now stand on all waters besides the Great Lakes, as per 46 USC § 8104, to work a tug or towboat deckhand 24-7-365. Ditto for unlicensed engineers. Our Coast Guard has remained out of the manning/watches/fatigue fray, absolutely desperate not to say or do anything remotely contrary to the wishes of their so-called “industry partners.” We mariners, of course, are not considered to be a part of this “partnership.” In fact, we’re not considered at all.
If the Coast Guard were to respond to these criticisms, which is unlikely, they will no doubt point to their Crew Endurance Management System (CEMS) program (click here for the Spring 2009 newsletter) as evidence of their seriousness of intent. Claims may be made that mariners and operators need more “education”, and that more study needs to be done. This is mostly untrue: what needs to be done is well known, there’s just no will to do it. CEMS alone is the equivalent of symptomatic treatment of a disease, but the disease itself is being left untreated. This is largely a manning, watch-schedule and enforcement issue.
To be fair, there is also a legislative component to this problem, as far as fixing the flawed regulations themselves are concerned. Congress would have to change the statutory laws upon which the Coast Guard’s regulations (administrative laws) are based. But Congress won’t do this unless a., they know that there is a problem that needs to be addressed, b., they believe it to be important enough to require action, c., that they know what needs to be done about it and d., that the political will exists to make it happen. Congress is not exactly overflowing with marine safety experts, so they rely (amongst other sources) on the executive branch agencies like the Coast Guard to advise them on all manner of technical issues. There is a mechanism in place for just this very purpose, called a legislative change proposal (LCP).
Anytime the Coast Guard wishes it may submit an LCP to Congress, via the Dept. of Homeland Security, suggesting the changes that would need to be made to our existing statutory laws that would allow them to change their regulations accordingly (click here to read about the LCP to bring towing vessels under inspection, in the 3rd section down under Legislative News). This has not happened regarding the standard 2-watch system but, at least so far as establishing some minimal protections for unlicensed towing vessel personnel, it’s unnecessary. 46 USC § 8904(c) states very clearly that “The Secretary may prescribe by regulation requirements for maximum hours of service (including recording and recordkeeping of that service) of individuals engaged on a towing vessel that is at least 26 feet in length measured from end to end over the deck (excluding the sheer).”
Those words clearly grant the Coast Guard all the authority it will ever need to establish maximum work-hour regulations for all towing vessel personnel, even within the confines of the existing but inadequate 2-watch system. Will they actually do it, or does Congress actually have to go to the extreme measure of changing “may” to “shall”? The opportunity is obviously there as the new towing vessel inspection regulations are created. Will they then effectively enforce those regulations? History says no, and for the Coast Guard to break from their past will require either a completely new mindset from within the agency (possible, but not likely) or the stinging lash of Congress.
Editor’s Note: for more information on fatigue click here and scroll down to the Fatigue Reports, Studies, Guidance & Recommendations section.
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