Fatigue At the Helm

By John DeLisi

Everyone has gotten up from a night’s rest feeling more tired than the night before.  Often, it is from staying out too late, getting up early, or having something on your mind making it hard to sleep.  Yet, for some, no matter how early they go to bed and how late they get up, they feel tired.  One cause could be obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).

Today, the five-member Board of the NTSB met to review the report of a marine accident that occurred in Port Arthur, Texas, on Jan. 23, 2010.  While transiting the Sabine-Naches Canal, the oil tankship Eagle Otome collided with a general cargo vessel and was subsequently hit by a barge being pushed by a towboat.  This series of collisions resulted in a leak of an estimated 462,000 gallons of oil into the canal.  One of the issues revealed in the investigation was the first pilot’s untreated OSA.

Unfortunately, this was not the first accident — across all modes of transportation — the NTSB investigated in which OSA was identified as an issue.  In the marine environment, several accidents have highlighted the need for a timely and effective medical program to identify and treat mariners who are at risk for OSA and other sleep disorders.  For example:

The U.S. Coast Guard has been working to develop educational materials about sleep disorders and their diagnosis, but more needs to be done.  At the helm of a several-hundred-thousand-ton oil tanker, cargo ship, or cruise ship is no place for a fatigued pilot.


John DeLisi is Acting Director, Office of Marine Safety

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