Fatigue in the harbour towage sector


The following report was received in response to the request in Maritime FEEDBACK 56 for seafarers with experience of fatigue at work to contact CHIRP.

What the reporter told us:

After reading your latest CHIRP Maritime publication where you requested examples of fatigue occurring in the maritime industry, I will try to explain the fatigue which is present in our harbour towage sector.

All crew work 7 days on / 7 days off. The main issue is that crews can and regularly do work 14 hours in a 24-hour period with 10 hours of rest. This is not unusual, but twice a week the rest hours can be broken down into 3 separate periods e.g. 6,2,2 which is unusual. This is further exacerbated by the crews working to no recognised marine watchkeeping pattern. The routine is allowed under a long-standing agreement between the owners and a union. The agreement has been accepted by the flag state administration which has granted a dispensation to allow the rest hours to be split into three periods rather than the maximum two periods stipulated in the STCW Hours of Rest regulations.

Being a long-standing agreement over many years, the system we work was never analysed for the effects of fatigue and the long-term health consequences, even though the technology is now available and has been used on other agreements.

During the working week crews will work days, nights and a combination of both, with no scheduled rest periods. Instead we take rest periods at random times through the day and night between ship movements in a non-tidal-restricted port. Furthermore, meal preparation, cooking, eating and cleaning up is not classed as work time so is carried out three times daily within the random rest periods. This leads to unhealthy meal choices and due to the nature of the work schedules we follow, meals can be taken late at night.

Further dialogue:

In the past few years there has been a marked increase in the number and size of ships calling at our port which results in more tug movements, but there has been no increase in the number of tugs or crews.

When the agreement was first introduced there were enough crews and the system worked well – fatigue and stress were not issues –  but since then the crew numbers have been reduced from 72 crew manning four tugs on a 1 day on / 3 days off rotation to the present 30 crew manning four tugs  on a 7 days on / 7 days off rotation. Virtually all crew members struggle to get enough rest.

All crew members experience difficulties sleeping with the rotating day and night working, and experience the effects of fatigue whilst engaged in safety-critical operations. Crew members speak of experiencing headaches, feeling jet lagged and not feeling normal until after the 2nd or 3rd day of their week off as a result of the massive disruption of their circadian rhythms.

Crewmembers that have declared themselves fatigued have been met with a negative attitude from the company, with the crewmembers having to explain why they have declared themselves fatigued.

During a recent shipping medical after several crewmembers mentioned the situation, the doctor had serious concerns regarding the working conditions in our towage sector, prompting the doctor to notify the chief medical officer of the flag state administration. As yet there is no satisfactory outcome.

A local risk assessment on fatigue was carried out by a combination of lower management and crew representatives, as part of the company’s required Fatigue Management Plan. However, none of the participants had any specific training or specialised knowledge about fatigue.

The problem described is not limited to a single port but is widespread wherever this work pattern is followed.

CHIRP Comment:  

  • A proper risk assessment, carried out by qualified people, would immediately identify the risks the current working arrangement presents to the health, safety and welfare of the crews.
  • Use of modern technology and scientifically recognised programmes (see Project Martha) would readily identify and quantify the levels of fatigue and risk present.
  • The company have a duty to reduce such identified risks to as low as is reasonably possible.
  • The flag state administration has not granted any exemptions to trading vessels but for some reason is treating these tug and towage operations differently.
  • While this long-standing agreement has been revalidated every 5 years, CHIRP would argue that due to changes in the workings of this port and others, the additional workload on the tugs renders the present agreement no longer fit for purpose and a full review needs to be carried out by all parties.
  • The STCW Hours of Rest regulations set the internationally agreed minimum number of hours of rest for seafarers and the maximum number of periods those hours of rest can be divided into. CHIRP cannot see the justification for any exemption that is detrimental to the health, safety and welfare of the tug crews.
  • CHIRP has written to the Harbour Master, as the responsible authority within the port, to share our concerns with him over the present situation. Furthermore, CHIRP has written to the national administration expressing concern at the consequences of the current dispensation arrangement.


Report Ends.

1 Comment

  • Donald Trump

    My I say first of all, That I appreciate yourselves (CHIRP) taking an avid interest in this report & personally welcome your reservations and points regarding hours of rest issues in the UK inshore Harbour Towage industry.

    Primarily the Union is to blame for a lot of this, put simply (They are in bed with this particular Towage company), how can you have a Union Vice chair who is employed by the Towage company and is also where he is in the Union and he is supposed to be negotiating on the crews behalf, when I would see he is negotiating for the Towage company?

    A working system where if you are based at certain port, the company has a done a deal with the Flag State and the Union (A tri-party Agreement) and that you can have your rest hours split into 3 blocks of rest in a 24 hour period? (How is 2 x 2 hour rest blocks meaningful? (after you have eaten, washed & completed other personal tasks in these rest periods & the Tri-party members think this is acceptable?

    Other ports where this Towage operator operates will not allow this system of 3 block rest, but unfortunately 1 particular port has this system in place and you are met with from management “If you do not like the system, LEAVE”

    Where, at the end of the working week, As the norm, it takes 2-3 days to get yourself together and catch up with lost sleep, & where Fatigue is a constant issue?

    I honestly believe that the only change will come about after there has been a fatality due to fatigue issues & stress.

    I hope the Flag state and the Harbour Master take note of Chirps recommendations.