Sleep and sleepiness of fishermen on rotating schedules

Philippa Gander, Margo van den Berg, Leigh Signal
Chronobiology International 2008, 25 (2): 389-98
Seafaring is a hazardous occupation with high death and injury rates, but the role of seafarer fatigue in these events is generally not well documented. The International Maritime Organization has identified seafarer fatigue as an important health and safety issue. Most research to date has focused on more regularly scheduled types of operations (e.g., merchant vessels, ferries), but there is relatively little information on commercial fishing, which often involves high day-to-day and seasonal variability in work patterns and workload. The present study was designed to monitor the sleep and sleepiness of commercial fishermen at home and during extended periods at sea during the peak of the hoki fishing season, with a view to developing better fatigue management strategies for this workforce. Sleep (wrist actigraphy and sleep diaries) and sleepiness (Karolinska Sleepiness Scale [KSS] before and after each sleep period) of 20 deckhands were monitored for 4-13 days at home and for 5-9 days at sea while working a nominal 12 h on/6 h off schedule. On the 12 h on/6 hoff schedule, there was still a clear preference for sleep at night. Comparing the last three days at home and the first three days at sea showed that fishermen were more likely to have split sleep at sea (Wilcoxon signed ranks p < 0.001), but the median sleep/24 h did not differ significantly by location (5.9 h at sea vs. 6.7 h at home). However, on 23% of days at sea, fishermen obtained < 4 h total sleep/24 h, compared to 3% of days at home ( p(chi 2) < 0.01). Sleep efficiency, mean activity counts/min sleep, and subjective ratings of sleep quality did not differ significantly between the last three days at home and the first three days at sea. However, sleepiness ratings remained higher after sleep at sea (Wilcoxon signed ranks p < 0.05), with fishermen having post-sleep KSS ratings >or= 7 on 24% of days at sea vs. 9% of days at home (Wilcoxon signed ranks p < 0.01). This work adds to the limited number of studies that objectively monitored the sleep of seafarers. It has the strength of operational fidelity but the weakness that large inter- and intra-individual variability in sleep, combined with the small sample size, limited the power of the study to detect statistically significant differences between sleep at home and at sea. The clear preference for sleep at night during the 12 h on/6 h off schedule at sea is consistent with the expectation that this 18 h duty/rest cycle is outside the range of entrainment of the circadian pacemaker. High levels of acute sleep loss, and residual sleepiness after sleep, were much more common at sea than at home. The longer duration of trips during the peak of the fishing season increases the risk of performance impairment due to greater cumulative sleep loss than would be expected on typical three-day trips. Key fatigue management strategies in this environment include that fishermen report to work as well rested as possible. Once at sea, the day-to-day variability in activities due to uncontrollable factors, such as fishing success, repairing gear, and weather conditions, mean that contingency planning is required for managing situations where the entire crew have experienced long periods of intensive work with minimum recovery opportunities.

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