Union slams “two watch system” study

Written by Nick Blenkey
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MM&P's George Quick

APRIL 1, 2016 — The International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots (MM&P) says a recently released paper on the “six-on/six-off” watch system is “little more than an opinion piece intended to serve the interests of operators in the inland tug and barge industry.”

The paper, “Enhancing Sleep Efficiency on Vessels in the Tug/Towboat/Barge Industry,” is the product of Northwestern University and was sponsored by the National Cooperative Freight Research Program (NCFRP)

In the introduction, notes MM&P, the authors state that guidance in preparing the paper was provided by freight stakeholders with emphasis placed on representing the intended users.

The publishers state that, “The opinions and conclusions expressed or implied in this report are those of the researchers… and are not necessarily those of the Transportation Research Board; the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; or the program sponsors.”

“It is interesting to note that the paper came out at the same time the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) identified fatigue in the transportation industry as a high priority issue that it needs to address,” says MM&P Vice President George Quick. “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 objective 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.”

“Self-serving opinions combined with selected research papers on fatigue and sleep in a very different environment, such as astronauts in space, are used to justify inherently unsafe practices,” he adds.

Mr. Quick sees “a serious credibility issue” with the paper, calling it “essentially an advocacy position paper for the American Waterways Operators.”

As a counterpoint to the NCFRP paper, Quick points to Project Horizon, a multi-year scientific study of the impact on cognitive performance of watch-keeping patterns.In Project Horizon, which was sponsored by the European Commission, researchers analyzed data drawn from realistic scenarios using experienced watch-keepers working on ship simulators.

Project Horizon researchers found substantial risks caused by fatigue-induced impairment of cognitive ability in the six-on/six-off watch system.

“The NCFRP paper should be viewed in the context of the longstanding debate between regulators, companies and seafarers as to the solution to the endemic problem of fatigue-induced accidents in the maritime transportation industry that operates 24/7,” Mr. Quick says. “There is no doubt that fatigue is a serious problem. The debate is over the possible solutions.”

Because crewing costs money, companies argue that there is no need for additional crew members. Their position is that the problem can be solved through “effective management” of available resources, such as the Fatigue Resource Management System (FRMS) advocated in the NCFRP paper.

Seafarers and their advocates argue that both crewing and personnel management need to be addressed, and that in many cases vessels lack sufficient crew to manage fatigue.  They view the FRMS as a way to shift the responsibility for fatigue from the company to the watchstander: if seafarers have a fatigue-related accident, they are blamed for not having properly managed their work and rest periods.

“To avoid fatigue and resulting accidents, there is clearly a need to match the crewing to the required operational workload,” Mr. Quick says. “In our view the NCFRP paper is just another example of the companies attempting to influence the upcoming NTSB review of fatigue in the transportation industry.”

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