Everyone who has worked at sea knows that situations can arise when crew members are so tired that there is a risk of them falling asleep or losing concentration. Their ability to make the right decision, depending on the watch system in use, the work environment, the type of ship and the weather, is also compromised. We have taken out statistics and some typical accidents from our database where the cause of the accident can be linked with tiredness, fatigue and the influence of alcohol, drugs or medicines.
In one of the grounding accidents the master had been on the bridge for 18 hours. He was alone on the bridge, set a new course on the autopilot, sat down in a chair and fell asleep. The ship continued for just over an hour, having missed a turning point and went aground. In another case a pilot ship discovered a vessel sailing on the wrong side of the separation in Öresund. The pilot boat tried to attract attention on the ship by all possible means, without success. The pilot and the boatswain finally decided to board the ship. When they came up to the bridge they found the master asleep, without anybody else on watch. A number of accidents occurred in connection with mooring procedures at berth or to another ship for bunkering or barging, when the master made a clear misjudgement after working long hours. These errors of judgement often result in collisions with the quayside or other ships, with damage to the hull and port facilities as a result. One conclusion that can be drawn from the statistics is that the greatest risk of fatigue is on small dry loaders. These ships are rarely obliged to have a pilot and officers on board often work two-watch systems, which quickly lead to fatigue.
The negative impact of alcohol on judgements and decisions is hardly news, but according to the statistics it is not unusual.
Considering that a large majority of accidents take place in narrow waters with only one officer on the bridge, there are simple means to prevent and avoid many of these events. There were some accidents where both the outlook/chief mate and the officer on watch had fallen asleep and the ship grounded, but these incidents happened after the consumption of alcohol.
With well-planned watches and a risk-based manning of the bridge, most of these accidents could be avoided. It is very risky to underestimate the impact of fatigue on a person’s ability to assess their surroundings and make the right decisions. The vast majority of the accidents we looked at caused major damage to the ships, with dents and perforations of the hull or bent propeller blades, shafts and rudders. This type of damage requires work in the shipyard and the ship being out of service. Considering the costs and loss of income involved, it must be more profitable to invest in a sustainable organisation in the long term.
We looked at a ten-year period between 2005 and 2015 and found 49 accidents with direct links to the above issues.
• In 31 cases the officer on watch had fallen asleep on board.
• 14 accidents could be attributed to the effects of alcohol, although the person on watch remained awake.
• In the remaining 4 cases, the officer on watch made misjudgements that were directly linked to tiredness and stress.
• 29 of the 31 accidents where the officer had fallen asleep resulted in grounding and 2 ended in a collision.
• In 10 of the 31 cases the officer was also under the influence of alcohol or medicine.
• In our statistics, the majority of ships involved were small, dry cargo ships: 29 accidents. Next were fishing ships: 7; passenger ships: 5; tankers: 5; road-ferries: 2; bulk ships, tugs and container ships: 1 each.
• None of the ships had a pilot on board.
• In 13 of the cases the ships had two-watch systems; 9 cases had a different type of relief/watch system; 6 cases had no information about the watch system; in 3 cases a three-watch system was in use.
• 29 of the 31 events took place in narrow passages/coastal waters.
• In 26 of the 31 cases the officer was alone on the bridge; in 2 cases there was an outlook and in 3 cases there were 2 officers on watch.
• 26 of the events took place in the dark or twilight, and in 17 of these cases there was good visibility.
• The most common contributory causes of these accidents were human factors, too few in the crew, and the influence of alcohol or medicine.