In January of this year the findings of “Project MARTHA”, a three year study into the causes and effects of crew fatigue, were released – along with proposals as to how best to mitigate against the risks posed by crew fatigue. The study was conducted by a number of eminent academic institutions with extensive input from the shipping community.

The report serves as a timely reminder of the dangers associated with fatigue to those serving on board vessels, as well as those who own and operate them.

Project MARTHA 

The Project MARTHA Final Report highlights (perhaps unsurprisingly) that crew fatigue can lead to extremely serious consequences, including; accidents and injuries, ill health, ship casualties, disability, sick leave and reduced performance. The report notes further that fatigue can lead to an increased risk of conflict between crew members and a consequent reduction in a vessel’s overall performance.

These findings are of particular concern to an industry where the risk of fatigue is high – contributed to by stress, long irregular hours, sleep deprivation, noise, motion and short turnaround times. The risk is further increased where crew members are subjected to an unhealthy work environment, for example by virtue of accommodation design or operational conditions, and/or suffer from a lack of nutrition. Exposure to one to two of these factors makes an individual twice as susceptible to fatigue whereas exposure to all of the above, makes an individual up to 30 times more susceptible.

The report goes on to state that the dangers of crew fatigue can be mitigated through the introduction and development of effective Fatigue Risk Management Systems. These are prevalent in other safety critical transport industries (i.e. aviation, road and rail) but are found by the authors of the report to be “less mature” in the shipping industry.

Relevance to Seaworthiness

Whilst enhancing crew welfare for its own sake should be sufficient motivation for the industry to take action, failure to do so also exposes owners to legal challenges as to a vessel’s seaworthiness.

Under common law, Owners give an absolute warranty of seaworthiness. In the vast majority of cases however, this obligation is qualified by cargo carrying regimes (such as the Hague Visby Rules) to one of “due diligence”. We therefore consider seaworthiness on that basis, where the test has been conveniently restated in the relatively recent case of Garnet Trading and Shipping (Singapore) Pte v Baominh Insurance Co [2011] 1 Lloyd’s Rep, 589 at para 160.

“A ship will be deemed seaworthy if she is in a reasonably fit state as to repairs, equipment, crew and all other respects to encounter the ordinary perils of the voyage at the time of sailing on it”.

To determine if a vessel is unseaworthy, her condition is subjected to what is customarily referred to as the “prudent owner’s test”. In the context of manning, the question is whether a reasonably prudent owner would have allowed his vessel to put to sea with a particular master and crew in light of all the relevant factors and the crew’s knowledge and training in respect of the vessel. If the answer is ‘no’, then the vessel will not be considered seaworthy.

Crew negligence in itself will ordinarily be insufficient to render a vessel unseaworthy but crew incompetence i.e. a crew member’s skill level failing to reach that which should reasonably be expected from an ordinary person in that rank, may be sufficient to do so. In The Eurasian Dream [2002] 1 Lloyd’s Rep. 719, Cresswell J found that in order to be considered competent, a crew must not only receive adequate training and instruction so as to have sufficient knowledge of a vessel and its systems, but also the requisite physical and mental ability and willingness to perform their job competently.

As yet, there are no known reported cases of crew fatigue being held to render a vessel unseaworthy but the concept of seaworthiness has been recognised by the English court as both flexible and dynamic. With studies such as Project MARTHA providing owners with an ever greater understanding of the causes and effects of crew fatigue and how to manage the risks it poses – it is suggested that it is inevitable such cases will be brought if owners and operators do not take heed.