Feeling tired and stressed on the job?

These are not just physiological issues, but are "the leading causes of accidents on the river and other places," Richard Bunch, licensed physical therapist and ergonomic specialist, told a WorkBoat workshop on stress and fatigue management.

Stress can be the source of many a mariner's health problems. It can interrupt sleep, lead to poor eating habits and obesity and cause heart troubles, said Bunch, who is also CEO of WorkSaver Systems, which provides ergonomic services and fit for duty testing. The cortisol that is released during stressful moments can increase one's blood pressure and insulin, hasten the aging process, deplete vitamins and minerals and weaken the immune system, he said.

"People who are chronically stressed don't maintain their vital vitamins and minerals and this leads to colds, a compromised immune system, and a risk of cancer," Bunch explained.

Poor nutrition - most notably too many carbohydrates, sugar and fatty foods -can also cause one's body to hit highs and lows during the day, which could be dangerous for mariners who must be sharp during their shifts. "Post lunch grogginess is one of the biggest risk areas as are doing graveyard shifts," Bunch said. "The way we eat and what we eat can make us stressed out."

Bunch said some simple lifestyle changes can help:

  • drinking lots of water
  • limiting caffeine, which can zap the body of hydration
  • curbing sugar, especially in desserts and sugary drinks. "Americans eat an average of three pounds of sugar a day," he said. "We are sugar addicted in this country."
  • exercising. This can be hard on boats, but Bunch suggests a stationary exercise bike, working out with an exercise band for strength training, getting quality sleep. Melatonin is a safe sleep aid.
  • eating more raw foods - nuts, fruits, vegetables. Using honey as a hot drink sweetener packs a good punch of natural nutrients over refined white sugar.
  • taking a multiple vitamin to offset deficiencies caused by stress
  • taking a baby aspirin every night can reduce heart attacks

Vessel companies can also play a big role in improving the health of their employees. Bunch said he'd like to see six hour shifts eliminated in favor of eight hour or longer ones, so that mariners can get better quality sleep. He said it's very hard for someone to get good sleep in less than six hours.

He also suggests that companies work with fitness experts to set up exercise programs for their employees that are adapted to both vessels and shoreside operations. He said those who exercise could be given prizes or bonuses to encourage their efforts.

Companies can also do better at buying and preparing more nutritious meals. "I visited a drilling rig recently and there was a table of brownies, cakes and other sweets available all day for people to snack on," he said. "So we put it all in a cabinet marked desserts, and put of the fruits and veggies on the table. And it helped when things were out of sight, out of mind.

"Sometimes the simple things work, " he added, "like doing a light lunch, drinking water, cutting back the sugar, and eating small portions during the day."