Master and Crew Fatigue: fighting and defeating a silent enemy

Maritime Mutual Risk Bulletin No. 60

Master and Crew Fatigue


Fatigue caused by sleep deprivation and/or long hours of arduous work creates a serious hazard in many industries. In shipping, this hazard often exists due to 24/7 operational demands, rapid port turnaround pressures and smaller ‘minimum manning’ crews. The costly impacts include ship collisions, groundings, oil pollution, crew injury and even death. This Risk Bulletin is intended to raise awareness of the fatigue hazard challenge and provide recommendations to avoid tragedy and loss.


Fatigue is a ‘human element’ problem that affects operating personnel in almost all transport industries. In addition to shipping, this includes airlines, railways and road transport. It is a problem that has been studied in detail by a range of experts comprising both medical specialists and professional accident investigators.

The causes of fatigue have largely been identified but prevention at this time appears limited to regulatory provisions designed to prevent excessive hours of work. The use of self-test questionnaires to establish a seafarer’s fitness to go on duty is also available. Regrettably, these measures often fail due to commercial pressures and seafarer’s fear of job security repercussions.

What is Seafarer Fatigue?

Fatigue is much more dangerous than just being tired. Members are referred to the IMO’s comprehensive and updated Guidelines on Fatigue provided by MSC.1/Circ.1598. The IMO Guidelines define fatigue as follows:

“A state of physical and/or mental impairment resulting from factors such as inadequate sleep, extended wakefulness, work/rest requirements out of sync with circadian rhythms and physical, mental or emotional exertion that can impair alertness and the ability to safely operate a ship or perform safety-related duties.”

The Guidelines then provide eight detailed sections which unpack and explain the multiple causes of ship crew fatigue, the hazards created, and the pro-active steps required to mitigate the associated risks. They should be studied by all those concerned with and/or subjected to the risks of seafarer fatigue.

Members are also referred to the Australian Maritime Authority (AMSA) publication Fatigue Guidelines, published in March 2020.  The Guidelines are based on the IMO Guidelines on Fatigue, MSC.1/Circ. 1598 (as referred to above). They provide easy-to-read and illustrated information on the causes, consequences and management of fatigue.

Lessons Learned

An internet search for maritime accidents, in which ship master, watch officer or even ship pilot fatigue was a significant factor, provides numerous investigative examples of ship groundings and jetty damage. Crew injuries and deaths have also occurred, often due to excessive hours of work during cargo hold and tank cleaning, with crew members becoming exhausted and then making illogical and unsafe choices while using ladders and other equipment.

A recent and costly lesson on the impact of a Master’s acute fatigue is provided by the collision of the VLCC ATINA with the drill rig SP-57B in the Southwest Pass Anchorage Area, near the entrance to the Mississippi River. The full details are contained in US NTSB report MAB-21/24.

The Master was required to join the ATINA on very short notice. He spent over 50 hours flying and travelling, without sleep, to join the vessel. His relief of the former Master took place at the gangway, during a change of pilots, as the vessel was downbound in the Mississippi River. This was in clear breach of the owner’s ISM Code SMS procedures which required that a relieving Master who had not served on the vessel before should be provided with a 7-day pre-handover familiarisation period.

After clearing the river entrance and then disembarking the pilot, the Passage Plan provided for the vessel to proceed to an anchorage located about 3.2. n.mi. to the northeast of an oil and gas production platform designated SP-57B. However, due to the new Master’s lack of sleep and consequent wish to anchor as soon as possible, he altered the Passage Plan by deciding to anchor at about 0.7 n.mi. from SP-57B.

The bridge Voyage Data Recorder conversations between the Master and the 2nd Officer on the bridge later revealed there were serious miscommunications regarding the ATINA’s position and her distance off the SP-57B. After dropping anchor, the ATINA then swung with the current towards the SP-57B.  She subsequently contacted the platform, causing severe damage and a claim of USD 72.9 million. The damage to the ATINA’s hull amounted to USD 598,400.00.

The NTSB’s findings were that: “The probable cause of the contact of the ATINA with SP-57B was the ATINA’s operating company not ensuring sufficient time for the master’s turnover, which resulted in the Master’s acute fatigue and poor situational awareness during an attempted night-time anchoring evolution”.

Seafarer Hours of Work and Rest Regulation

The IMO’s Guidelines on Fatigue have already been referred to above. 

The underlying regulation is provided by separate but overlapping provisions contained in the ILO’s MLC (Maritime Labour Convention) and the IMO’s STCW Convention. The IMO explains that these separate Conventions were ‘harmonised’ by the Manila Amendments 2010 to the STCW Convention. The content of the fatigue prevention sections of the MLC and STCW Convention are summarised as below.


ILO Convention No.180 (adopted 1996) provided the original and mandatory limits on hours of work and rest for all seafarers. These work/rest limits are now contained within the ILO’s MLC 2006, at Reg. 2.3,as amended to 2018  (see page 31 for the full text).

In summary, the MLC 2006 (at Reg. 2.3) provides as follows:

  • Maximum hours of work: 
    • You must not work more than 14 hours in any 24-hour period.
    • You must not work more than 72 hours in any seven-day period.
  • Minimum hours of rest:
    • You must have at least 10 hours of rest in any 24-hour period.
    • You must have at least 77 hours rest in any seven-day period.
    • The hours of rest can be divided into no more than two periods, one of which must be at least 6 hours long.
    • You cannot work for more than 14 hours without taking rest.
  • Administrative Requirements:
    • A table setting out shipboard working arrangements for every position, with a schedule of sea and port service and the max. hrs. of work and min. hrs of rest must be posted on board in a readily accessible place.
    • Rest hours must be recorded for monitoring, with a copy provided to each seafarer for their endorsement.
    • Master can require a seafarer to perform any hours of work necessary for the immediate safety of the ship, persons on board or cargo, or aiding other ships or persons in distress at sea.

NOTE: Flag States have the option of basing their own MLC based regulatory limits on maximum hours of work or minimum hours of rest. It appears that most Flag States have opted to specify the MLC minimum hours of rest required.

STCW Convention

The IMO’s STCW Convention at Regulations A-VIII/1 and B/VIII/1 sets out the requirements for the prevention of fatigue for ‘watchkeepers and those whose duties involve designated safety, prevention of pollution and security duties’.

In summary, the fatigue prevention elements of the STCW Convention provide as follows: 

  • Minimum hours of rest:
    • Same as the MLC requirements noted above.
    • Exceptions are allowed with a rest period of not less than 70 hrs within a 7-day period, but any exceptions must not continue for more than two consecutive weeks.
  • Administration:
    • Watch schedules must be posted in readily accessible areas.
    • Rest hours must be recorded for monitoring, with a copy provided to each seafarer for their endorsement.
    • Master can suspend watch schedules and rest periods in emergency situations or during other overriding operational conditions.

      NOTE: ‘Overriding operational conditions’ are defined at Reg. B-VIII/1 as ‘essential shipboard work which cannot be delayed for safety or environmental reasons, or which could not reasonably have been anticipated at the commencement of the voyage’.

In terms of the slight differences between the MLC and STCW Convention fatigue prevention requirements, the STCW Convention stipulates hours of rest only and – unlike the MLC – provides no option for Flag States to elect the hours of work option.  As such, the STCW Convention allows longer periods of work. The STCW is also ‘watchkeeper fitness for duty’ focused than whereas the MLC refers to all seafarers.

Fatigue Prevention and Regulatory Compliance

The MLC and/or STCW Convention and their fatigue prevention provisions apply on board all vessels in international trade which are registered in Flag States that have ratified either one or both Conventions.

Vessels in domestic trade may be subject to similar provisions which have been incorporated into NCVS (Non-Convention Vessel Standards) regulations. Members who are owners of such vessels should confer with their flag state administration and/or their appointed ROs to establish current regulatory requirements.

The accurate and honest recording of seafarer work and rest hours is essential to the use of this process as a genuine and useful fatigue loss prevention tool. It is also essential to avoiding breaches of regulatory compliance and consequent detention by PSC authorities.

Members are also respectfully reminded of their P&I insurance obligation to always ensure full regulatory compliance.

Conclusion and Takeaway

The serious dangers of seafarer and watchkeeper fatigue and the very costly and tragic accidents which may result must always be kept in mind. Awareness and preventive work/rest recording and full compliance measures are currently the only regulatory solution available.

Members are encouraged to share this Risk Bulletin and the links it contains with their ship managers, DPAs and Masters. Members are also urged to review their ISM Code or NCVS equivalent SMS Procedures to ensure they include specific references to:

  1. The MLC and/or STCW hours of work and rest regulation which apply to their vessels.
  2. The IMO’s updated Guidelines on Fatigue MSC.1/Circ.1598.
  3. The AMSA) publication Fatigue Guidelines.

Finally, Members need to ensure that their updated fatigue prevention Procedures are in fact being applied on board and are checked carefully during both ISM/NCVS SMS internal and external audit processes.  

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