Fatigue and distraction at sea top NTSB Most Wanted

Frank S. Clowney III

Every two years, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) releases a Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements. The list publicizes transportation dangers that could be reduced if only employers and workers focused their efforts on them.

The 2019–2020 edition names two areas that may have maritime workers and their employers on high alert until the 2021 edition is released, and probably long after. Still, the list’s bright spotlight sometimes quickly brings on much-needed reforms.

Mariners distracted by mobile personal devices

The NTSB cites the 2013 damaging of San Francisco’s Bay Bridge by a 752-foot tanker. Nobody was hurt, but repairs to the bridge and vessel were estimated at $1.4 million.

The NTSB, the main federal body that investigates transportation mishaps, found a major cause of the accident to be that the ship master’s reduced attention due to a phone call he was on while passing under the bridge.

The board warns there is no such thing as “multitasking” since the human mind can only focus on one thing at a time. It recommends managers adopt “sterile cockpit” procedures, prohibiting electronic devices for nonoperational purposes. They also call on mariners to observe the Coast Guard rule of maintaining proper “lookout” by both sight and sound at all times.

Marine vessel operation needs well-rested crews

The midnight sinking of a fishing vessel in the Gulf of Maine in 2016 serves as one of the NTSB examples of the hazards of sleep deprivation. Some of the crew had “as little as 3 hours of sleep throughout the 3 days” of mentally and physically demanding work, including navigation and the use of heavy equipment.

The board calls for the use of fatigue risk management programs that address scheduling, workload, proper rest environments, medical screening and treatment, life choices outside of work, commuting, napping and other issues.

After setting up such programs, their success should be continually monitored to reduce risks for personnel performing safety-critical tasks.