Sleep deprived in the wheelhouse?

Are you getting enough sleep on the job?

A group of researchers at Northwestern University wants to know. They are studying the sleep patterns of towing vessel crews and will eventually recommend ways for mariners to improve their onboard sleeping patterns with the goal of promoting alertness and safe vessel operation.

The Northwestern University Anchor Sleep/Nap Sleep Study is funded by the American Waterways Operators and will build on earlier studies sponsored by AWO and the Coast Guard’s Crew Endurance Management System. Previous research has shown that getting seven to eight hours of sleep in two steps – a longer “anchor sleep” and a shorter “nap sleep” – can be equally effective on the job as one uninterrupted chunk of sleep.

Northwestern researchers recently finished a series of five two-week visits aboard towing vessels operated by Ingram Barge, K-Sea, Marquette Transportation, Canal Barge and DeLoach Marine Services. Five additional trips with other AWO-member companies are scheduled in the months ahead.

The study team reports that crewmembers are getting close to eight hours “time in bed” per 24-hour period, however actual sleep time is about six hours, according to AWO. Researchers are trying to determine the reasons for this pattern and develop possible recommendations for improving the quality and quantity of sleep that crewmembers obtain.

In addition to affecting a person’s cognitive abilities, chronic sleep loss can also contribute to health problems, including weight gain, high blood pressure, and reduced power of the body’s immune system, according to a report by the Harvard Women’s Health Watch. For towboat crews, fatigue can be a contributing factor to human errors that lead to vessel accidents. A Coast Guard analysis of towing vessel accidents revealed that human factors accounted for 54 percent of the medium- and high-severity incidents and about 40 percent of the low-severity incidents.

So what are your experiences with sleeping onboard? What are the impediments to a good rest period, and do you have any suggestions for improving your shut-eye?

About the author

Pamela Glass

Pamela Glass is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for WorkBoat. She reports on the decisions and deliberations of congressional committees and federal agencies that affect the maritime industry, including the Coast Guard, U.S. Maritime Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Prior to coming to WorkBoat, she covered coastal, oceans and maritime industry news for 15 years for newspapers in coastal areas of Massachusetts and Michigan for Ottaway News Service, a division of the Dow Jones Company. She began her newspaper career at the New Bedford (Mass.) Standard-Times. A native of Massachusetts, she is a 1978 graduate of Wesleyan University (Conn.). She currently resides in Potomac, Md.

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