Offshore Shift Work & The Dangers of Fatigue

There's no denying the importance of maritime workers in the global economy. Ships and other vessels transport over 90% of the world's goods, providing jobs for maritime workers in the U.S. and abroad. Of these industries, offshore oil exploration and extraction is among the most important. Teams work around the clock in shifts to make sure the demands for American oil are met.

Shift work is popular in the offshore industry. It’s used by companies that wish to have operations running day and night to maximize how much of a product—such as crude oil—they can collect. Yet, studies reveal that shift work comes at the cost of something important: the health and safety of workers.

Is Offshore Shift Work Dangerous for Workers?

Typically, shift work involves night shifts that take place between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m. Studies have found that irregular sleep patterns such as this can have dangerous effects on the health of workers. Interrupted sleeping patterns can result in difficulty falling asleep as well as the lack of the ability to sleep for extended amounts of time. As the internal clocks of workers try to adjust to new patterns of sleep, something known as shift work disorder (SWD) can develop. When a person has SWD, they might exhibit excessive sleepiness or insomnia. Depending on what study is looked at, about 10% to 38% of shift workers develop SWD.

Even if a worker doesn’t develop complete SWD, there’s a significant chance they haven’t completely adjusted to their schedule. One study found that only 3% of shift workers can completely adapt to working at night. In other words, most shift workers suffer from fatigue to an extent. While companies try to mitigate the effects of shift work by switching workers to permanent night schedules, any progress toward adjustment is typically undone when those workers have days off. Workers who are off from night shifts often try to go back to a normal schedule—something that encourages SWD.

Health Risks of Shift Work

Besides fatigue, shift work has been associated with various health risks. One of the most significant health risks associated with shift work is cardiovascular disease. A study focusing on the cardiovascular health of shift workers found that they experienced a 40% higher chance of having poor cardiovascular health.

Other studies have also associated shift work with health problems such as:

  • Gastrointestinal symptoms
  • Peptic ulcer disease
  • Increased risk of breast cancer in women
  • Metabolic disturbances
  • Mental health issues
  • Pregnancy complications
  • Decreased health of family relationships

Worker Fatigue & Maritime Accidents

One of the most common causes of accidents is worker fatigue. Given the nature of the maritime industry, the vessels are typically in operation 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. Because offshore vessels cannot easily and cheaply rotate new work crews while they are hundreds or thousands of miles out at sea, employers are prone to asking the onboard crew to work extended shifts, many times 16 hours a day and upwards of 20 days in a row. That type of work schedule takes its toll.

Shift work is associated with an increase in worker injuries and fatality rates. Notably, the only regulations placed on workers to prevent dangerous fatigue are hours of service regulations—something that only applies to the drivers of large trucks.

The Dangers of Worker Fatigue

Having a constantly overworked crew is dangerous on many levels. Research has shown that tired or fatigued workers are more prone to physical or mental lapses that could lead to an accident. Being tired or fatigued makes workers less alert and aware of their surroundings and has been shown to negatively affect decision-making and judgment. The inherent dangers of offshore vessels make the need for alert and rested workers even more important.

Unfortunately, because worker fatigue is so pervasive in the maritime industry, it often gets overlooked or goes unnoticed. It is taken as a basic fact of life. Managing worker fatigue is not only necessary; maritime employers are obligated to do it to keep the crew safe. Employees must maintain healthy working practices to make sure they receive enough rest.

What Can Be Done About Offshore Worker Fatigue?

While employers should allow workers to get adequate rest between shifts, completely abandoning shift work is not a viable solution to offshore worker fatigue. Instead, there must be a way to monitor workers and intervene if they are simply too tired to do their jobs.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has helpful insight into fatigue monitoring and detection technologies (FMDT), which are meant to help employers prevent fatigue-related accidents and injuries. In the oil and gas extraction industry, both offshore workers and those on land are at risk of suffering harm in incidents caused by fatigue. If oil and gas companies start implementing better ways of detecting worker fatigue (or implement a workable system in the first place, as many have none), countless lives could be saved.

Wearable technology, including smartwatches and fitness trackers, has become increasingly popular over the past decade. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), wearable technology can also be used to monitor fatigue and other health issues in the workplace.

This type of device could use three methods to detect fatigue:

  • Electroencephalography (EEG) sensors to monitor brain activity
  • Checking for visual cues or microsleeps
  • Monitoring sleep and activity data to calculate a worker’s fatigue risk

The National Safety Council (NSC) reports that 77% of workers stated they were exposed to work fatigue. 40% say fatigue has contributed to or caused a serious injury or fatality at work. However, only about 18% of employers are using health monitoring methods. 49% of those that are adopted them within the past year.

Increased usage of wearable technology for fatigue monitoring in the workplace can only have positive effects, particularly for offshore crews who work long hours or night shifts.

Learn more about this in our blog: New Technology Might Help Solve Offshore Fatigue Safety Issues.

Fighting for Injured Maritime Workers

Given the importance of the maritime industry, the need for safe working conditions for maritime and offshore workers should be a top priority. Yet, too often, accidents occur that seriously injure or kill maritime workers. And many times, these accidents could have been easily prevented had employers been adhering to effective safety practices. Workers should not have to worry about their safety when going to work. Safety is an inherent right.

Employers must carefully monitor working conditions to make sure their employees are cared for. Whether this is by modifying work schedules to allow for adequate rest, implementing fatigue monitoring systems, or (ideally) a combination of the two, they must put safety first. If you have been injured in a maritime accident, you may be entitled to compensation. At Arnold & Itkin, our team of maritime attorneys offers free consultations to injured maritime and offshore workers across the country.

Call our offshore injury lawyers today if you think unreasonable and unsafe shift work practices caused the accident that started your suffering. We’re ready to help you with a free consultation when you dial (888) 346-5024.

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