Fatigue at sea should not be ignored

Captain Fared Khan, marine director at Wallem Ship Management, applauds recent research on a key issue by Intermanager.

The recent report, Project MARTHA published by Intermanager shows that fatigue at sea is a growing problem. The report highlights growing levels of fatigue, particularly among Masters and Watch Keepers.

Fatigue at sea (both physical and mental) can impact judgement and therefore safety and can contribute to increased stress. This is a very serious issue which must be addressed and measures taken for it to be alleviated.

Regulations, compliance and monitoring

The shipping industry has strict regulations in place that all shipowners and ship managers must comply with regarding work and rest hours. These regulations are only part of the story. Checks need to be in place to ensure that these regulations are being adhered to strictly by all seafarers at all times without any operational or commercial pressures, perceived or otherwise from all shore-based stakeholders.

At Wallem we have a dedicated cell (made up of several ex-senior officers) for monitoring and supporting seafarers in planning and ensuring work rest hours are met. Responsibilities include:

• Working with charterers and owners to ensure that the ship complies with workrest hour requirements
• Supporting shipboard staff to plan work (schedules)
• Taking steps to provide extra manpower when needed
• Trending data on ship type, trade and available manpower to forecast work load and assist senior officers onboard to plan work schedules for ports with simultaneous operations (SIMPOS) such as loading cargo, bunkering , storing followed by short sea passages requiring tank cleaning. Support and guidance on SIMOPS ensures proper planning and proper work rest hours to mitigate risk.

Importance of wellbeing, engagement and empowerment

Regulations and compliance are only a small part of the equation. Given what we know today about the effects of physical tiredness on the body and mind, it is imperative that companies have programs in place to ensure that seafarers’ wellbeing is top priority.

We are committed to ensuring the wellbeing of Wallem seafarers. This commitment is formalized in our Wellness@Sea program which was developed in conjunction with a clinical psychologist.

The program addresses mental and emotional health and covers every aspect of wellbeing at sea, from stress management to healthy eating and the importance of quality sleep and exercise; as well as a positive working culture and behavior. Stress management and support due to any unacceptable bullying or harassment onboard is covered under our Dignity@Sea program.

Awareness on work-life balance at sea is a key aspect of our pre-joining safety briefings and training sessions and hard copies of the guide (in both English and Chinese) are available onboard for ready reference. The key to both these programs is that we are empowering our seafarers to take care of themselves and their health, while offering them our full support.

We have a confidential email portal that can be used without fear of bias or retribution. It goes to the highest level of management, with a clinical psychologist who is experienced with seafarers on consultation to address the more critical issues. We also extensively promote the support system from the industry to our seafarers such as the Sailor’s Society’s free Wellness At Sea App, an interactive way for seafarers to monitor their progress.

However, support should not stop with the seafarer themselves. It is critical that support is provided to the seafarers’ families too. At Wallem we are very grateful for the constant support provided to our seafarers’ families by the various chapters of the charitable organisation Women of Wallem (WoW). Knowing that their families are well taken care of and have a strong support system in their absence can relieve a good deal of stress that seafarers are facing.

As well as support for health and wellbeing, I personally believe very strongly in the power of engagement. Seafarers who feel happy and engaged is essential to boost morale onboard. Our seafarers are provided with ample opportunities to upgrade their skills and training via our in-house training portal and events such as safety dinners onboard are regularly arranged onboard to keep the crew motivated and unified towards the same goal – safe and efficient operations for themselves, the Company and our Customers.

Respect and commitment

While our crew is made up of a great mix of people from different cultural backgrounds, Wallem is the largest employer of Chinese seafarers outside of China. All Wallem seafarers are treated equally and with respect and not defined by nationality. Emphasis is put on the very simple concept of the “Wallem Professional Seafarer’ who is expected to have a strong safety mindset and take pride in his/her commitment to Wallem and our customers. In turn, it is our commitment, along with the provision of a strong safety culture and secure living conditions which attracts seafarers to Wallem.

Overtime is carefully monitored by the same cell that monitors workrest hours and we have measures in place to ensure that any seafarer showing signs of fatigue is not allowed to continue to work as they are risking endangering themselves, their colleagues, our owners assets’ and environment.

Call for urgent action

Intermanger is calling for urgent industry action on this critical issue of the increasing stress and workload onboard. Wallem fully supports increased compliance in this area. The safety and wellbeing of all seafarers should be a top priority industry-wide.

This issue is not going to disappear. At Wallem we are taking proactive steps to mitigate it and face it head on in every aspect of what we do from raising awareness, training, empowering our seafarers, embedding this into our Safety Management System and providing support required. We believe that this is something that every responsible employer of seafarers, ship owner and ship manager should do.

This issue has to be addressed if we are to continue retaining professional high performing seafarers, attracting new seafarers and promoting this profession to the younger generation.


  1. Capt Khan presents a great article here. I support his position 1000%. I know most other seafarers around the world stand with him, of every culture and ethnicity.

    Fatigue knows not what nationality, gender, or religious beliefs you hold…or even care. And most of all…even if you are a Trump supporter, we get ‘tired’ after a 20 hour day, too. (cheers to you all out there!)

    But this article will be tossed up onto the mountain of other “calls for action” in a fight against FATIGUE that plagues our industry. Capt. Khan is but one more voice that will be heard, listened to, then summarily ignored by those in a position to do something about it.

    I have never worked for Wallem, but have handled their ships as a pilot. If what Khan says here is true and they are employing self imposed rules within their fleet to genuinely minimize fatigue aboard their ships, then I applaud them. Their effort is the exception to the rule. Sadly, while there are other shipping companies that are doing the same, the vast majority of owners and operators are complying to minimum manning standards that are embraced by IMO, port state regulators, and P&I Clubs all over the world. And therein lies the pathetic joke of it all.

    It took the disastrous EXXON VALDEZ accident to finally wake up the US flag shipping industry, regulators, maritime insurance sector, and the USCG; to finally acknowledge in writing the impacts of being tired and trying to continue to work safely onboard ship.

    Eventually, that condition simply doesn’t exist after a long period of time.

    While “fatigue” was listed as a significant causation in the final report of the VALDEZ accident back in 1989, today we are right back where we started. Most US flag ships, like our foreign counterparts, have just as many crew onboard now as we did in 1989.

    Please don’t tell me that ‘automation’ has relieved owners of the due diligence of keeping enough crew onboard. Automation may allow your E/R to not be fully manned 24 hours a day at sea. But alarms in the middle of the night still require a human response to wake up, get dressed, go below, assess the alarm, attend the ‘fix’, ensure all is ok, then go back to your cabin. So much for a restful ‘uninterrupted sleep’ period as required by STCW rules, eh?

    I see/hear Captains and Chief Engineers putting more effort into creative writing in their logbooks to maintain their ships within the mandatory guidelines of adequate rest for the crew. And nobody cares, because if they did, the savvy inspectors would genuinely be able to see through their fiction.

    The most ironic situation? As a pilot I go aboard a ship at 0500 in the morning and bring them into the harbor. The officers and crew are busy the entire time, starting from the moment they woke up several hours before I come aboard. After berthing the entire crew are busy with provisioning, taking bunkers, loading spares, changing some crew, and dealing with boarding officials and technicians from shore. Oh, and lets not forget the cargo operations. Finally, add in the inspections when the USCG come aboard. Fire and boat drills for the crew, checking log books, etc. The usual time consuming and for the Master and C/E, a stressful periods.

    Late that same night after being in port all day and night with barely time to grab a meal, the ship is supposed to sail. I walk onto the bridge as the Mate is hurrying through his pre-departure checks 10 minutes before departure. The USCG is walking off the ship after giving their ‘approval’ to sail after successfully passing inspection. Now I look around and see that the officers and crew are as exhausted as anyone would expect. it’s near midnight as we prepare to get underway. Most everyone has been awake for the last 20 hours. They will remain awake and working long after I get off.

    Some will have to continue standing watch, as most others will be allowed to go to sleep…finally.

    The irony is the entity that should be ensuring the crew is ‘rested’ and able to perform their jobs safely has contributed to the CAUSE of fatigue. Then they have the audacity to tell the Master that he and his ship are operating within the safe requirements of the STCW and have ‘earned’ the right to depart port knowing they are managing a safe operation aboard ship.

    I am certain this evolution happens aboard ships everyday all around the world. It’s not my intent to single out the USCG, but ALL regulating entities that share in this area of responsibility. Fatigue remains an issue in our industry almost 30 years after the EXXON VALDEZ. Have we learned anything in that time we didn’t already know?

    Apparently not.

    1. All that Ed writes is true. So is what Captain Khan writes.

      (at this point I will stick my paw in the air and say yes, I once worked for Wallems)

      The hours of rest are yet another prescriptive regulation applied without thought.

      A friend is Chief Officer aboard bulk carriers operated by a company with a golden reputation. Inevitably, he ran over his hours trying to get the holds passed for grain; the response from his office was the wonderfully helpful “Ensure that you comply with hours of rest in future!” . I am sure he is feeling terrifically motivated…

      One little thing – the role of the deep sea pilot aboard boxboats – he is just about essential in the Dover Straits and the North Sea if the ship is to be navigated safely , never mind if the hours of rest are to be complied with.

      There is no equivalent as yet for an equally busy, or busier, stretch of water – the coast of China, which like the southern North Sea includes a number of ports that boxboats must call at in quick sucession – a state of affairs that is not conducive to the watchkeepers, or the Master, or the engineers, getting proper rest.

      In my own company we have adopted the practice, once common in tankers, of putting the Chief Officer on daywork “on the coast” and taking on board an extra watchkeeping officer for the duration of the ship’s stay on the China coast,
      and no doubt other container lines do the same.

      There are no doubt many other trades where fatigue is “winked at” – it would be good to have a list.

  2. Yes, excellent Andrew. The most frequent comment i hear repeatedly from Masters on all ships, both foreign and US flag is simply, “I wish we had four Mates and Assistant Engineers.” That would change everything, on all ships in coastwise trades.

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