Fatigue: Three Groundings in a Four-Month Period

By USCG Lt. Jon Lane

Commercial fishermen are not strangers to fatigue. Fatigue is a pervasive issue on all fishing boats, both big and small. In an industry where working hours are controlled by when the fishing is good, and not regulated by the Coast Guard, vessel owners and operators sometimes overlook the potential dangers associated with fatigued crew members for the sake of maximizing their catch. As a result, 16 to 18 hour workdays are common on most boats.

You don’t have to do much research to know that fatigue is prevalent in the fishing industry, and it was recently recognized by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) as one of the top safety concerns for the entire transportation industry. The NTSB characterizes fatigue on their web site as a subtle condition that creeps up on airline pilots, motor coach drivers and vessel captains because they “do not realize until it is too late that they cannot safely complete their duties because of fatigue.” (Source: http://www.ntsb.gov/safety/mwl-1.html)

In the four month period between June and September of 2011, three commercial fishing vessels ran aground in the waters around Washington State. The Coast Guard’s investigation of each of these groundings revealed a common causal factor – fatigue. Each one of these cases involved a tired fisherman that fell asleep at the helm. All of them were doing their very best to get the boat back home after a hard working trip.

The sinister thing about fatigue is that we all do our very best to try and “push through” it because we want to get the job done, but exhaustion doesn’t let up. Weariness, weakness and tiredness shadow us until it is too late. If mistakes and errors are like fire, fatigue is the catalyst that turns them into infernos.

Fortunately, not one of the aforementioned groundings resulted in injury; however, there were a few bruised egos and lost revenue. For the two “minor” groundings, the vessels incurred several thousand dollars worth of damage and precious lost time. The most serious of these groundings resulted in a total loss of the boat. It tipped over on the rock it was grounded on when the tide went out. It sank and subsequently discharged an undetermined amount of oil into the water.

Vessels and equipment are replaceable – lives are not. Fortunately for all involved, this recent spate of groundings did not hurt or kill anyone or cause significant damage to the environment. If this trend isn’t reversed or stopped, it’s just a matter of time before a fatigue-related incident will result in the loss of life and/or major environmental damage.

So, as the owner, operator, master or manager of a commercial fishing vessel, what can you do to combat fatigue on your boat? Educate yourself on the anti-fatigue strategies and tools that are available and take action.

The US Coast Guard’s Research and Development Center recognized the need to provide vessel owners, operators, managers and masters with a solution to the fatigue problem, so they developed the Crew Endurance Management (CEM) Practices Guide. The Guide provides proven practices for managing endurance risk factors (sleep loss, stress, heat, cold, etc.) that affect operational safety and crew member efficiency.

The CEM Guide and a whole lot of other useful CEM information is available free on the Coast Guard’s CEM website at http://www.uscg.mil/hq/cg5/cg5211/cems.asp.

Our partner organizations, the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association (AMSEA) and the North Pacific Fishing Vessel Owners’ Association (NPFVOA) are another great resource you can access for information about fatigue fighting strategies.

If the thought of being responsible for damaging your boat, or someone else’s boat, or even worse, injuring or killing a fellow fisherman does not give you reason enough to consider implementing a crew endurance management program, then consider this: If you operate your vessel without a proper look-out and an accident happens, you might incur the following criminal and/or civil penalties:

• Misconduct, negligence or inattention to duties by a vessel captain that results in the loss of life is a Class C Felony punishable by up to 10 years in jail and/or a $250,000 fine as per 18 U.S. C. § 1115.

• Operating a vessel in a grossly negligent manner that endangers life, limb or property of a person is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and/or a $100,000 fine as per 46 U. S. C. § 2302(b).

• Operating a non-recreational vessel in a negligent manner so as to endanger life limb or property of a person may result in a $25, 000 civil penalty as per 46 U.S.C. § 2303(a).

Your local Coast Guard Sector or Marine Safety Unit can assist you in getting the information you need to implement a CEM program. Once you have a program in place, Coast Guard personnel can use the CEM Navigation and Vessel Inspection Circular (NVIC) No. 02-08 to help you assess the effectiveness of your CEM program. For more information, contact your local Coast Guard Commercial Fishing Vessel Safety or Marine Casualty Investigations Office.

Lieutenant Jon Lane is currently the Assistant Chief of the Investigations Division at U. S. Coast Guard Sector Puget Sound. Jon has been a marine casualty investigator for the last seven years and a Coastie for 24 years.