Hey mariners, think you’re not getting enough sleep on board? You may be right, based on data from a recent research project by the American Waterways Operators (AWO) and Northwestern University’s Center for Sleep & Circadian Biology aimed at reducing fatigue and improving safety.
A recently completed portion of the study shows that mariners who spend more than eight hours in bed are sleeping only an average of 6 ½ hours rather than the desired 7 to 8 hours over a 24-hour period. The next phase of the research project hopes to determine why.
“People are getting time in bed, but their sleep efficiency is not where we want it to be,” said Jennifer Carpenter, AWO’s senior vice president, national advocacy. “The Northwestern research is really looking at sleep schedules and is rooted in some really promising research by NASA,” which found that getting sleep in two chunks could be just as good as one long chunk.
Researchers spent time on 10 inland and coastal vessels and interviewed 72 mariners. Some of the findings surprised them.
“We would have thought the crew working the back watch (sleeping 6 a.m. to noon) would actually sleep less than the captain’s watch,” said Kathryn Reid, with the department of neurology at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine. They found that the mariners were sleeping about the same.
The study has been “extremely valuable because it’s expanded the science about the issue of how a mariner gets sufficient rest on a towboat,” said Jim Farley, executive vice president, operations, Kirby Inland Marine Transportation, one of the participating companies.
Research shows that a two-watch system provides the seven hours of sleep needed. “We wanted to be sure that was doable in a two-watch system,” Farley said. At Kirby, the watch schedules are set by each vessel.
Some companies that have experimented with the rectangular watch (7-on 7-off, 5-on 5-off) have gone back to the square watch of 6-6-6-6, Carpenter said. And some have changed the hours of the 6-on 6-off, going from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. instead of noon to 6.
The next project phase, which is funded by AWO for another year, will be a survey of 500 wheelhouse crew.
“There are many reasons sleep could be disturbed,” Reid said. Among them are pain, stress, age, diet and the general environment on board. However, “it’s not possible to eliminate all sounds and movement,” she said.