Can Crew Fatigue Contribute To Unseaworthiness?

Fatigued dockworker inside port full of cargo

In maritime law, the doctrine of unseaworthiness is one of the most versatile aspects when it comes to protecting crew safety. 

Maritime requires that shipowners and employers provide every reasonable attempt to keep their crews as safe as possible. In addition to providing the needed training and safety equipment to get their job done safely and effectively, their responsibilities also extend into keeping their vessels function, safe, and kept up to the best of their abilities – hence, seaworthiness.

Historically, the concept of “seaworthiness” has covered a lot of different aspects of a vessel. There’s the more obvious factors, such as the physical condition of the vessel itself, as well as the maintenance and upkeep of the equipment used while the vessel is in navigation, but certain less tangible elements can equally play into a vessel’s overall safety and seaworthiness, including the crew themselves.

Crew Fatigue and Unseaworthiness

It’s no secret that vessel crews can undergo a lot of demanding, stressful labor during their time at sea. From the captain to the navigator to the cargo workers below decks, maritime work can be one of the most labor-intensive and overall draining industries to work in, often with little time to rest and recover. This can go double during times of pandemic or inclement weather, as external conditions may render it unsafe for the vessel to return to shore and thus increase the period of time the workers have to remain onboard a vessel during the course of their employment.

Over the past decade, the maritime industry (both in North America and throughout the world) has experienced a sharp rise in accidents and injuries found to be caused by crew exhaustion and fatigue, including:

  • Grounding of tugboats in the Pacific Northwest after a second mate dozed off and missed a course change
  • A collision between a major crabbing boat and a jetty on the Columbia River due to a captain asleep on the bridge, resulting in a $1.8 million dollar loss
  • The grounding of a tug on the Inside Passage in British Columbia after a lone mate fell asleep on their watch duty
  • A Chief Engineer working on major engine repairs for nearly 2 straight days without rest, inadvertently hurrying a delicate waste system cleaning task leading to a major engine room fire, resulting in several onboard casualties

These are but a few recent examples of what can happen when a crew is not given ample time to rest and refresh themselves from their job duties.

Battling Crew Fatigue

So what can be done about this epidemic? It may seem a bit reductive, but quite simply, crews need to be given the opportunity to get a solid eight hours of sleep per day.

The ways this can be accomplished will vary from vessel to vessel and job role to job role, but proper rest and recovery is the only way to prevent crew fatigue. Proper shift management is crucial for this, as it ensures no one crew member is forced to work too long without time for sleep, or forced to start their next shift without being able to rest for eight hours.

Crew rotation is a vital part of combating crew fatigue as well. Employers have a responsibility to ensure each vessel is properly staffed to handle any potential work duties that may arise, but that means more than simply picking the best worker for the job – it means having sufficient enough staffing levels to make sure any shift can be covered long enough for the other workers to rest up from their shift. 

While laws are in place to ensure maximum hours of work and minimum hours of rest for all maritime workers, greater care is required from employers to ensure this rest is actually productive and beneficial for the crewmember in question. 

If you or a loved one have been injured due to an overworked/over-fatigued crew member while working or relaxing on the water, contact O’Bryan Law today to begin a review of your case.


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