Inside the Issues

Too tired?


Some heavy demands are unavoidable during a contract at sea, but seafarers must be on guard against the dangers of fatigue.

No seafarer expects an easy ride in the ever-changing environment of a ship at sea. However, crew sizes have been steadily reducing for years, while workloads are getting heavier – and not just because fewer seafarers are sharing the same duties. Changes in technology, additional regulatory and security procedures, and longer hours are all piling on the pressure.

And while work intensity increases, rest and leisure time are declining. Commercial pressures and new restrictions mean fast turnaround times in port, little time to get ashore, and even where sufficient time exists, many seafarers are being denied shore leave.

Our inspectors report that seafarers are coping well with their increased workloads. But it is clear that many have experienced fatigue, which puts their safety and that of the vessel at risk.

Unions and the ITF are working to ensure:
  • Universal enforcement of maritime regulations including ILO Convention 179 and article 7 of ILO 181, concerning minimum hours of rest and/or maximum hours of work
  • Proper safe manning levels on board ship
  • Universal recognition of the right of all seafarers to shore leave.



How do you cope with fatigue?

Comments from our straw poll:

"In order to avoid fatigue, crews should not do too much overtime and should only work half days on Saturdays.”
- Bambang Setyo, Indonesian, 2nd officer, general cargo ship, South Asia

"Crews should be on duty for only eight hours a day and work a maximum of two hours overtime.”
– Harley Mendoza, Filipino, bosun, ferry

"Period by period, every part of the ship is under pressure. You must prepare a workplan, as detailed as possible, and follow ILO regulations.”
– Salvador Ang, Filipino, chief officer, cement carrier, Italy/Turkey

"My experience of fatigue is mainly during discharging operations, when sometimes I work 20 hours straight.”
– Mr Sandu, Romanian, AB, cement carrier, Italy/Turkey

"Fatigue for us can be a problem when the ship is alongside in the port. Our ship, which goes all over the world with long navigation periods, often gives us a chance to have a proper rest. All the ship departments are periodically stressed in the same way. The right number of crew is the best guarantee of avoiding fatigue: don’t reduce the number.”
– Mr Ranish, Indian, chief officer, bulk carrier, worldwide

"Fatigue can happen every day. The crew should have more members. Our ship has only seven persons in the engine room.”
– Anonymity requested, four Italian seafarers, Italy/Sicily

"During my previous contract I worked 18 hours straight without any rest, when the ship was alongside in the port. But generally we get 16 to 18 hours resting time before entering the port.”
– Filipino, deck boy, container ship, East Mediterranean

"I have experienced fatigue, due to my concern about safety during continuous manoeuvring in the channel. To avoid fatigue you must follow a proper work schedule and get proper rest.”
– Juanito, Filipino, master, bulk carrier, worldwide

"I experienced fatigue, a long time ago. But now we follow the work and rest periods of crew as laid out in the STCW95 guidelines. Fatigue can easily become an issue if say the engine breaks down or there is another major problem. But the answer is to follow the correct schedule of eight hours work, followed by a rest period of not less than 10 hours.”
– Gualberto, Filipino, chief engineer, bulk carrier, worldwide

"I have experienced fatigue, when we had experienced a breakdown and sea water was coming in, and we had to stop it. I had to work three to four weeks without free time, sleeping very little. During normal times, as long as there is no emergency work, we undertake routine maintenance work. As long as we follow the routines properly, and have our weekly meetings, we don’t have any problems.”
– Amadao, Filipino, chief engineer, cargo ship, worldwide

Exhaustion in heavy weather:

"During heavy weather conditions it can be very tiring. I remember a few days, in the Arctic area – it was impossible to leave the bridge even for half an hour for supper. Sometimes you want to leave but then you cannot, because something happens to the breaker. During a storm you are always aware of the danger. You are afraid, you are committed to the vessel, always concentrating 100 per cent. After a continuous storm, you are very exhausted, you have to rest, for maybe half a day or so.

"I suppose the deck is the part of the ship where crew are most affected by fatigue. For example, sometimes the cargo is not well secured, so you have to secure it day by day. It is hard to have a rest. Maybe once or twice per contract, you need to give crew a one and a half day rest because of the pressure of day-by-day securing.

"We cannot avoid storms or technical problems. You have to address the reasons for fatigue, so during a storm for example, it is necessary to proceed to a safe course. You have to be careful, to proceed safely, to keep the cargo from slipping. While in port you can send two or three guys ashore, give them one day to have a rest after some tough days.”
– Anatoly, Russian, captain, general cargo ship, worldwide

Take good care of yourself

Not only is there clearly no access to a hospital or clinic when you’re in the middle of an ocean, but life at sea can be fraught with health risks. Infections may spread easily through the captive environment onboard, while the seafarers’ lifestyle can lead to poor diet, lack of exercise, and vulnerability to sexually transmitted infections.

The International Committee on Seafarers’ Welfare has been addressing some of these problems in several information and advice materials as part of a project called the Seafarers’ Health Information Project (SHIP), sponsored by the ITF Seafarers’ Trust.

Here are some of the tips detailed in the SHIP information materials.

Watch your weight
Obesity exposes a seafarer to a host of nasty illnesses including, in particular, diseases of the heart and arteries.

These diseases end many seafaring careers early and are the number one
killer of seafarers while at sea.

Set a healthy target weight and stick to it. If you find you have already put on weight, make efforts to lose it, slowly and steadily.

Stay fit
  • Sit-ups, press-ups and stretching routines can be done in your cabin.
  • Weights: improvise with small cans of food or bottles of water.
  • Exercise with another crew member and set goals.
  • Take brisk aerobic exercise (such as walking and, when you get the chance, cycling and swimming) for at least 30 minutes three times per week.
  • When in port visit seafarers’ sports centres whenever possible.
  • Use the stairs whenever you can.
  • Organise competitions on board, for example table tennis.
Eat sensibly
  • Where possible, make carbohydrates the main part of your meal – eat wholemeal, wholegrain, brown or high fibre products as they contain higher levels of vitamins and minerals.
  • Avoid fattening butters, too much fried food (eg chips, poppadams) or putting too much fat – such as butter, cheesy sauces and mayonnaise – on your meals.
  • Eat at least five portions of different fruits and vegetables each day.
  • Also include, in moderation, protein-rich and dairy foods such as meat and poultry, beans, nuts, milk, yogurts and cheese.
  • Beware fatty, salty or sugary snacks such as crisps, chocolate and sweets. These are high in calories and can make you put on weight quickly.
Check foods onboard
  • Use the FIFO principle for storing: first in first out.
  • Cold room temperature should be 2-8c.
  • Destroy spoiled fruit and veg immediately.
  • Never allow raw meat to come into contact with ready to eat food.
  • Deep freezers should operate at -18c or below.
  • Clean and replace towels frequently or use disposables.
  • Food handlers: pay special attention to hair, hands and nail hygiene.
Sexually transmitted diseases
Anyone who is having unprotected sex can get a sexually transmitted disease from an infected partner.

HIV infection may be a particular risk for seafarers, who spend months away from home.
  • If you have sex while in port, always make sure you wear a condom.
  • If you get symptoms of any sexually transmitted infection, get seen at a clinic, or by a doctor as soon as you can, and refrain from further sexual relations until your symptoms have been treated.
For more information go to:

What is fatigue?

Make sure you recognise the danger signs. They include*:
  • Inability to stay awake
  • Difficulty with hand-eye coordination tasks (eg switch selection)
  • Slurred, slow or garbled speech
  • Clumsiness
  • Heaviness in the arms and legs or a sluggish feeling
  • Headaches
  • Giddiness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Insomnia
  • Increased intolerance and anti-social behaviour
  • Increased mood changes
  • Increased willingness to take risks
  • Needless worrying
  • Poor judgement of distance, speed, time, danger etc
  • Slow responses
  • Difficulty concentrating.
Help beat fatigue with the following guidelines*
  • Most important, use your maximum allowance of sleep, rest and leisure time
  • Inform your supervisor if you think fatigue may be impairing your performance
  • Where possible, rotate your tasks to mix heavy duty work with lighter duties
  • Ensure efficient maintenance of onboard facilities eg heating, ventilation, lightbulbs
  • Build proper exercise into your daily routine
  • Eat as healthily as possible, limit smoking and alcohol consumption
  • Caffeine (in tea, coffee, cola and chocolate) may combat sleepiness for very short periods
  • Any type of activity (even just chewing gum or stretching) can help keep you alert
  • Conversation can help you stay awake when tired
  • A short nap of at least 20 minutes can help.
* Source: Maritime Safety Council of the International Maritime Organisation