Fatigue led to four worker injuries and more than $360,000 in damages after a company failed to adhere to a 12-hour work limit it set for workers, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
The company’s failure to give a worker enough time to recover from fatigue led to one of its offshore supply vessels striking an oil and gas production platform, the NTSB said.
He was tired, groggy behind wheel
On June 25, 2021, the offshore supply vessel Elliot Cheramie was on its normal route between its home port in Louisiana and the oil and gas production platform VR-397A in the Gulf of Mexico. The vessel had a crew of four and was carrying five offshore workers.
The mate and deckhand were assigned the midnight-to-noon watch in the wheelhouse, with the mate steering the vessel in autopilot mode.
But the mate was more tired than usual and felt groggy, and he fell asleep. When he woke up, VR-397A was dead ahead. The mate attempted to avoid it, but the vessel struck the platform, resulting in four minor injuries and more than $360,000 in damages to the vessel, platform and pipelines.
Worked 12+ hours per day in 4 days leading to incident
In the four days leading up to the incident, the mate consistently worked for periods longer than the 12 hours recommended by the company’s fatigue management policy. The day before the incident, the mate reported working for 17 hours with some of that work requiring high levels of physical exertion.
The deckhand, who wasn’t in the wheelhouse when the incident occurred, had set an alarm to wake himself for the watch. However, he slept through it and missed his assignment. His duties would have included assisting the mate on the navigation, but other duties would have taken him away from the wheelhouse for extended periods of time.
The company’s safety management system recommended crewmembers get at least 24 hours of notice before beginning a night shift. However, the deckhand was assigned to the watch when he arrived onboard, only five hours before.
Company didn’t follow its fatigue management policy
National Transportation Safety Board investigators found that the probable cause of the incident was the company’s failure to adhere to its 12-hour work limit policy, which led to the fatigued mate falling asleep while on watch.
Specifically, the vessel operating procedures stated that “licensed personnel may not work for more than 12 hours in a consecutive 24-hour period.” Investigators found this practice wasn’t followed based on the work and rest histories of the mate.
In short, “crew fatigue was a significant causal and contributing factor,” according to investigators.
The NTSB said that, to avoid this kind of incident, company operational policies and requirements should follow fatigue management best practices to ensure crewmembers receive enough rest to perform their critical duties.
Further, companies should ensure their vessels are crewed with the appropriate number of trained personnel to safely perform operations without compromising work/rest schedules. They should also actively monitor schedules along with off-shift work performed by their crews to ensure that fatigue mitigation policies are adhered to.
Fatigue is a problem no matter the industry
This incident, while being both maritime and in the transportation industry, is relevant to safety professionals in all industries.
Fatigued workers in warehousing, manufacturing, health care, and other industries are a danger to themselves, co-workers and even the public, depending on what their job duties involve.
Effects of fatigue can include a reduction in vigilance, concentration, memory and reduced performance on complex or sequential tasks that require high levels of attention. These effects can lead to incidents that result in worker injury or death along with the high cost of damages for the company.
Methods to combat fatigue
Some of the NTSB’s recommendations for the maritime industry can certainly apply to other industries. If possible, companies should:
- have a fatigue management policy in place
- ensure workers have enough time to rest between shifts
- have enough trained workers to safely perform operations without compromising work/rest schedules, and
- actively monitor worker schedules to make sure they’re adhering to the fatigue management policy.
And if long shifts can’t be avoided:
- eliminate overtime since those extra few hours can lead to an accident
- schedule the easiest jobs at the end of the shift to reduce risk of injuries or accidents, and
- allow for power naps because a brief 20-minute nap can make a world of difference for workers who are pushing themselves.