Battle in the Bedroom
Industry Study on Work Schedules and Rest Periods reignites decades-old discussion on what constitutes enough sleep and in what ‘watch format’ will that adequate rest be achieved.
It wasn’t too long ago that the American Waterways Operators (AWO), the national trade association for the tugboat, towboat and barge industry, hailed a study conducted for the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine which concluded that “[t]here is currently no scientific data to support [...] a change in hours of service” for towing vessel crewmembers. Around the same time, International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots (MM&P) Vice President George Quick also weighed in and said there is “a serious credibility issue” with the paper, calling it “essentially an advocacy position paper for the American Waterways Operators.”
It should also come as no surprise that both camps – MM&P and AWO – reside on opposite sides of the argument with Quick’s largely blue water membership sailing on vessels employing a “4 on / 8 off” system of watches, while AWO’s membership almost overwhelmingly employ the traditional workboat “6 on / 6 off” schedule. It also goes without saying that any changes in the brown water system of manning and watch systems could potentially cost industry millions if it had to retool into the blue water practice of rotating watches stood usually by three officers, as opposed to two. Conversely, any move to change blue water manning models to more closely conform to the brown water standard might mean the reduction of manning levels even below today’s relatively lean schemes for ocean going, deep draft tonnage. And, no self-respecting seagoing union man wants to see that happen, right?
Although not at the heart of this particular matter, the discussion also dredges up hard feelings from brown water stakeholders who increasingly complain that blue water practices and regulations, STCW ‘creep’ and other policies are being pushed down onto smaller, brown water workboats with little consideration as to whether they fit, or not. And, with the impending subchapter M towboat rules lurking just around the corner, it’s safe to say that many stakeholders are likely following the matter closely.
- In the Real World
I honestly don’t have an opinion about which system of watches – or others that may be employed elsewhere – is better than the other. And, as an upfront disclaimer, I’m no expert on sleep science or efficiency metrics. All of that said, I can say that when I did go to sea – all of six years – I always did so on vessels employing the “4 on / 8 off” system of watches. Suffice it to say, on a coastwise chemical tanker, that schedule was frequently interrupted by any number of events. And, I have my own thoughts on adequate rest periods and how best to achieve that goal. I’m not sure you could do it under any watch system.
Looking back, it seems like I spent most of my watchkeeping time on the 12-to-4 watch. That’s a good thing, because I liked those hours, for some strange reason. And for a guy (today) who goes to bed before 10 PM on a regular basis, it wouldn’t seem that the 12-to-4 slot would have suited me, but, it did.
Sailing Second Mate on an aging chemical carrier in the mid-1980’s, I liked the solitude of the midwatch. You were less likely to see the Captain up at those hours, much less anyone else, and it limited the amount of time that the grouchy old man could reprimand me for some perceived, insignificant oversight on my part. On the other hand, the peace and quiet of the midwatch was also balanced by the hustle and bustle of the noon to four watch, when virtually everything you did was on display for all to see. For that matter, I am glad that I sailed in a time when the automatic bridge data recorders in use today weren’t even a gleam in the eye of the most ardent 1980’s techie.
Once relieved of the watch at sea, I typically retired to my stateroom where I was suppose my employer wanted me to turn in immediately and catch up on my sleep. But, I rarely did that. I can’t speak for other mariners, but I was usually far too wired after four hours of watch to go to sleep at 4 AM. In that pre-OPA90 world, I would first deadbolt the door and then, occasionally crack open a warm, 12-ounce, low-cal adult beverage, plop down in the broken recliner in my luxurious 1940’s-era stateroom, and read whatever novel I was grinding my way through at that particular moment.
With that scandalous beverage finished, I set about meticulously hiding the can from the bedroom steward (lest he ‘rat’ me out to the Old Man) and then I would turn in. How much sleep I got was usually determined by how much work had to be done on deck in the morning. If overtime was available, we were supposed to be on deck at 0800 with the deck gang. That didn’t leave a whole lot of time to sleep. The afternoon watch that followed that kind of routine could be a bit monotonous, and if you had to relieve the Chief Mate for supper in the evening, you might not get to bed yourself until well after 1800 hours.
In a perfect world, that “4 on / 8 off” rotation probably works just fine. On the other hand, sailing on a coastwise routing that might involve eight different ports and as many as ten different docks on a particular 15 day round trip, there was rarely more than two days in a row that could be considered routine. Arrivals and departures, docking and undocking, shifting berth, anchoring, two time changes and then tank cleaning and gas-freeing operations of 35 cargo tanks on the return ballast leg provided enough interruptions to the ‘normal’ schedule that arguing for one watch schedule over another probably seems kind of silly in retrospect.
The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA 90) mandates that, “On a tanker, a licensed individual or seaman may not be permitted to work more than 15 hours in any 24 hour period, or more than 36 hours in any 72-hour period, except in an emergency or a drill. In this subsection, ‘work’ includes any administrative duties associated with the vessel whether performed on board the vessel or onshore.” I never sat down to quantify how many hours that I was typically working in those days, or how many hours that could qualify as rest, but I know that we made a lot of money in overtime. I also doubt that we would have been in compliance with today’s ‘OPA 90’ rest mandates.
My only real exposure to a 6 and 6 watch schedule would come when we were on the ballast / tank cleaning leg on the way back to our typical loading berth. I did not like it, but then, my experience was rooted in the “4 on / 8 off” model, so that’s understandable. On these instances, with the Chief Mate working on deck 8 to 10 hours daily, the third mate and I would split his watch on the bridge. From my point of view, the 12 to 6 watch was excruciatingly long. And, I promise you, no one was getting their 7 to 8 hours of sleep on those days.
Six hours is a very long time to remain alert on the bridge of a ship. In open waters, it was also enormously boring. I can imagine that piloting a pushboat with ten barges on the inland waterways has to be equally, if not more taxing. Threading the needle on a narrow inland waterway demands constant attention and I would imagine that once relieved at the end of a six hour river watch, that it takes some time to wind down. That said; it is also fair to note that inland / brown water mariners typically have much shorter work rotations than do their blue water, deep draft counterparts. Maybe today’s typical pushboat mate, once relieved of the watch, sits down to read for an hour or so. More likely, he or she will pick up their smart phone, hope for a decent signal and do a little web surfing.
Jennifer Carpenter, AWO Executive Vice President & Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Carpenter also says, “The TRB study is the latest contribution to a growing body of scientific research in multiple transportation modes that demonstrates that splitting sleep into two periods can be a safe and effective way to manage fatigue in 24/7 operating environments like the tugboat, towboat and barge industry.” And, she continues in the same prepared statement, “AWO and its members have been working with the Coast Guard to prevent and manage fatigue risks in our industry for nearly two decades. We look forward to working with the Coast Guard and our other government partners to incorporate the TRB study recommendations in to our ongoing efforts to ensure that towing vessel crewmembers consistently obtain the quantity and quality of sleep they need to do their jobs safely and to optimize crew members’ sleep and endurance within existing industry watch schedules.” That’s a mouthful, but it also sounds reasonable to me.
From the other side of the bridge wing, however, MM&P’s Quick quickly disagrees. In an online posting taken from MM&P’s web site, Quick was quoted as saying, “The timing, the methodology and the conclusions appear to be an attempt to justify the current six-on/six-off watch system in the towing industry. The paper is not based on an independent scientific study but on interviews as to the opinions of the stakeholders–company officials or employees–who have an interest in or are under pressure to shape the outcome.”
- Seeing the forest for the trees …
I’m actually less concerned with which watch system is in use than I am with what happens when mariners everywhere go off watch. The seafaring profession is, at its root, an incredibly lonely way to make a living. I can say that. I’ve been there. I would suggest that the vast majority of mariners actually interact with very few people, for very short periods of time and in a typically superficial manner once signed onto a vessel. And, it is furthermore unreasonable to expect that mariners will immediately hit the rack at every ‘off-duty’ moment in order to be alert when they do go back on duty. It just isn’t going to happen. People have to eat, bathe, take up some form of pastime and in general do something other than work or sleep during work rotations that can reach or exceed six months.
For blue water mariners, off duty activities frequently mean access to the Internet, E-mail and other related e-entertainment delivery systems. Anyone who has a social media account, for example, can tell you that it can be an enormous consumer of time. This kind of behavior can become a serious habit, one which invites solitude and discourages interaction with others. Hence, while connectivity is what most mariners crave in today’s on board environment, like anything else, too much of a good thing can be unhealthy. I think we’re only just starting to understand this concept.
Think about it: in 1985, most ship operators worried primarily about alcoholism and maybe drug abuse amongst their crewmembers. It was a real concern. Fast forward to 2016 where we find that reduced manning leaves seafarers even more isolated on board these giant post-Panamax vessels, some spending hours at a time behind closed doors surfing the internet or something else. Arguing about which watch system is better than the other isn’t going to solve the problem.
In the ‘Summary’ section of the report, TRB reported that, “Human error related to operator fatigue is a major concern in all freight operations.” Well, that much we know. And, it goes on to say, “The general consensus is that 7 to 8 hours of sleep per 24-hour day is required to maintain acceptable levels of alertness, minimize fatigue, and permit optimum performance.” But, I don’t want to bore you. After all, the document goes on for a whopping 180 pages. I encourage everyone to click the LINK and to read every word: with caveats.
If you find yourself off watch and on board a merchant vessel or inland towboat as you claw your way through this blog, then I must insist that you immediately shut off your tablet, laptop or smart phone. It’s time to go to bed. That’s an order. – MarPro.
Joseph Keefe is the lead commentator of MaritimeProfessional.com. Additionally, he is Editor of both Maritime Professional and MarineNews print magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at Keefe@marinelink.com. MaritimeProfessional.com is the largest business networking site devoted to the marine industry. Each day thousands of industry professionals around the world log on to network, connect, and communicate.