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Insufficient Manning Levels and Fatigue Are Sources of Maritime Accidents

Oct 2, 2014 - Articles - by Dodson & Hooks, APLC

In his testimony before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, Don Marcus, International Secretary-Treasurer of the Masters, Mates & Pilots (MM&P), stated that many maritime accidents are due to fatigue caused by insufficient crews as a result of lax regulations that favor competition over safety.

Marcus cited the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) decision to put regulations that tackle the causes of fatigue on its Most Wanted List as evidence of the seriousness of the problem. Further, he stated that the NTSB has labeled the current regulations of the United States Coast Guard (USCG) as unacceptable.

He traced the root of the problem to the international nature of the maritime industry, and the fact that it allows freewheeling competition via the Flag of Convenience (FOC) system of operation. With the FOC, there is no true link between the nationality of the owner of the ship, its manager, its officers and crew, and the country under which flag it flies that is culpable for its regulation. As such, many ship owners register their ships under a FOC country with the most lax regulations in order to maximize profits.

Since the FOC does not allow for successful regulation, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which is run through the United Nations, has become the de facto regulator of international shipping, and the U.S. guidelines for international shipping as laid out by the USCG generally conform to the IMO rules. In addition, even U.S. domestic shipping regulations are heavily influenced by the IMO.

Marcus explained that because the IMO is a United Nations entity, many of the countries that control its governance are ones that benefit from the FOC system, and, as such, their rules are more about compromise rather than quality safety standards. Marcus contended that the IMO provisions regarding minimum rest requirements and crew levels are set well below what is needed to safely carry out routine ship operations, and since the U.S. guidelines follow suit more or less, they are also inadequate.

The current IMO mandatory rest hour rule allows a 91-hour workweek, a standard that the USCG is expected to adopt for both domestic and international U.S. ships. Marcus stated that the IMO rest provision is inadequate and was the result of compromise by the IMO rather than a determination by professional analysts on the effects of long shifts on workers’ cognitive abilities.

Marcus then moved on to a discussion of safe manning levels. He noted that reductions in crews have shifted the workload of minor tasks onto the master and chief mate taking them away from other more critical safety duties and increasing their fatigue.

Marcus also pointed out that tankers and container ships are extremely complicated to operate and that they exceed the length and tonnage of aircraft carriers. Their size and complexity make them a huge environmental threat in the case of an accident. As a result, he argued that a risk-based assessment concerning ship size and type as well as the role of critical crewmembers should be a factor in setting manning levels.

Marcus concluded by calling on Congress to order a study to review manning levels and their interplay with fatigue and workload. He emphasized that the study should be carried out by independent professionals in the human factors field and should also draw upon the numerous scientific studies that have been conducted on the effects of fatigue on work performance.

As demonstrated by Marcus’ testimony, maritime rules can be extremely complicated, and that is why it is important to consult an experienced maritime law attorney if you have been injured and are considering filing a lawsuit.

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