Fatigue! Do you know the signs?

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In a job as demanding a commercial fishing with it’s long hours, unpredictable conditions, and physical challenges – fatigue is always going to be a risk. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a problem!


And it’s not only commercial fishing where fatigue is an issue, its common in all sectors of the industry!

The good news is once you’ve got strategies in place to manage fatigue, you can keep on top of it and minimise the chances of it causing serious harm.

Fatigue is not what you think

When you’re fatigued, you might not even feel sleepy. In fact, it’s possible to both look and feel alert when being at risk of falling asleep!

This is because when you’re fatigued you can be over tired and the signs of being over tired are different to those of “feeling tiredness”. You may even feel lively, your heart may race as your adrenaline surges. In this state you could feel perfectly fit for work. The danger is your performance wouldn’t be up to scratch!

This is important because while caffeine may perk someone up who is tired, for fatigue, it can fool the body into thinking that it has more energy than it does. This compounds the risk of accidents on board.

Accident investigations have found that watchkeepers often “felt good” just prior to falling asleep on watch. You may do all the right things, but fatigue can, and most likely will still catch up with you!

Here’s a few ideas to help you. Some are common sense but where do you get that these days? While others come from lessons learned by others including vessel owners, Masters and crew members. All are aimed at either eliminating fatigue or preventing it from becoming a major problem.

5 ways to manage fatigue


      Talking about fatigue, this is a good place to start. It’s no use being the only one who understands and knows what signs to look for.

      Share what you know. Also, most importantly, urge the crew to tell you or someone else if they ever experience signs of fatigue and be sure to act when they do.


        Every fishing operation is different and there are no hard and fast rules about sleep. The most important thing is that everyone has recovery time and gets enough hours in, so the risk of fatigue is minimised.

        Here are some suggestions from skippers we talked to:

        • “20 minutes during the day is worth 3 hours at night.”
        • “Make sure when you do get downtime, you make good use of it.”
        • “Have a sleep when you can.”

        It also helps to:

        • make having ‘a good night’s sleep’ before sailing a priority for all
        • allow enough time off between sailings for recovery
        • encourage the crew to be open about their sleep problems.


        While a watchkeeping alarm won’t prevent you from becoming fatigued, but they do help manage safety when there’s a high risk of falling asleep. Make sure that the watch alarm suits your vessel.

        While most fatigue-related accidents happen at night, people fall asleep at the wheel any time of the day. About half of all of these accidents happen when leaving port.

        Keep in mind:

        • the alarm should operate independently of all other equipment in the wheelhouse
        • the alarm should always be on during a navigational watch
        • if it’s key-operated, an off-watch person should mind the key
        • the silence switch should be placed far enough away from the wheelhouse chair that the watchkeeper needs to get up to switch it off.
        • it is good practice for the Master to keep the key once the alarm is set: and
        • don’t forget that radar, sounds and AIS can all be alarmed or have guard rings set.


        The trip home can be particularly perilous, especially after a tiring day. Often the crew feel alert, even after working long hours. When the watchkeeper is left on his own while others sleep, however, this feeling of being fine can quickly disappear. In situations like this, it’s crucial that the skipper has a few plans up his sleeve to manage their safety.

        Here are a few strategies to think about:

        • the first watchkeeper has a 20-30 minute nap before taking watch (while others finish the work)
        • limit the first watches to 90 minutes – as well as minimising the effect of sleep inertia (grogginess) for the person coming onto watch, this also means the person on watch doesn’t have to stay awake long
        • make it a rule to use the watch keeping alarm


        The worst causes of fatigue often happen out of the blue, when the engine breaks down and takes hours to repair, for example, adding hours to the trip. Making plans for dealing with these kinds of problems before they happen prevents the skipper from needing to make snap decisions.

        It can pay to get everyone together to brainstorm what’s happened in the past and what potentially could go wrong in future and come up with plans to cope with unexpected events.

        Other steps to managing fatigue

        Make sure the sleeping area is comfortable. Why? If the space is too hot or cold, too light, or noisy, sleeping can be difficult. How? Think about installing ventilation, blocking out light (or offering eye masks), and soundproofing and/or reducing engine noise/vibration.

        Keep hydrated and well-nourished. Why? Dehydration and poor nutrition can contribute to fatigue. How? Provide water bottles, especially if it’s hot, and offer healthy meals and snacks (low sugar, high energy) like nuts, trail mix and boiled eggs.

        Control use of games and TV. Why? Crew may be tempted to forgo rest in order to play games or watch TV, and games can also distract watchkeepers on duty. How? Introduce a policy on the use of TVs and devices. For example: Recommend 10 minutes of checking social media and messages from family, then sleep while you can.

        Make sure everyone wears appropriate clothing. Why? Being too hot or cold can lead to fatigue. How? Wear 3 layers in the cold (including a windproof outer layer), cover the head, and keep feet warm and dry in layered socks and insulated boots.

        Take extra care on long days. Why? Lack of sleep has a cumulative effect. How? Encourage napping, especially at natural sleep times (3-5pm, after 9pm).

        Shorlink’s Recommendation

        We recommend installing a watchkeeping alarm, having it set by the Master then removing the key to prevent it being turned off.

        Also, ensure all crew are aware of the risk of fatigue and continue to monitor them for signs of fatigue as fatigue can and has caused serious injuries and loss of life. Remember…

        Fatigue will always be a risk, but it can be managed.

        The worst causes of fatigue often happen out of the blue.

        Lack of sleep has a cumulative effect.


        Always be on the look out for signs of fatigue, some of which are:

        • chronic tiredness, sleepiness or lack of energy.
        • headache.
        • dizziness.
        • sore or aching muscles.
        • muscle weakness.
        • slowed reflexes and responses.
        • impaired decision-making and judgement.
        • moodiness (such as irritability)

        The above is a short list of symptoms, for a more detailed list contact our office.

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