SecNav Questions Reports of 100-Hour Work Weeks for Sailors

Sailors heave line as the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer Donald Cook (DDG 75) returns to Rota, Spain, for a scheduled maintenance period on Aug. 16, 2017. Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Theron J. Godbold/Navy
Sailors heave line as the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer Donald Cook (DDG 75) returns to Rota, Spain, for a scheduled maintenance period on Aug. 16, 2017. Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Theron J. Godbold/Navy

On the heels of two deadly ship collisions this summer that spurred waves of investigations into Navy culture and practices, one of the most shocking reports was that some members of ship crews in the Pacific were forced to work 100 hours or more a week because of undermanning and poor scheduling, particularly during in-port periods.

This account caused some outrage, with Sen. John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, calling on the service to abolish the practice immediately. But, Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer told reporters at the Pentagon this week, there might be more to those reports than meets the eye.

"The 'hundred-hour' work week was a self-reporting study that was done that has very little science to it," Spencer said. "If I'm not mistaken, I think eating your meal was considered work. Hmm, I don't know if I'd put there in a work week eating and relaxing."

The account of 100-hour work weeks comes from a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, which cited a Navy internal study from 2014. That study surveyed standard work weeks of ship crews to pinpoint factors that would detract from sailors' ability to accomplish specific tasks.

"The Navy study found that sailors were on duty 108 hours a week, exceeding their weekly on-duty allocation of 81 hours," the study found. "This on-duty time included 90 hours of productive work -- 20 hours per week more than the 70 hours that is allotted in the standard work week."

The GAO report went on to warn that cutting into sailors' rest in such a way could lead to a "poor safety culture."

A chart showing the results of the Navy study shows sailors sleeping an average of 40 hours a week, or fewer than six hours per night. In addition to an average 90 hours of productive work, it found crews spend an average of 9 hours per week eating, 11 training, seven on administrative tasks, and just 10 in free time.

Anecdotal evidence makes clear that sailors deployed aboard ships do work long hours, with little dedicated free time allocated and few places to go when off-duty.

"In practice, we know most sailors work far more hours, often 80 to 90 per week or more, and are forced to prioritize what work will get done and what will not," wrote retired Capt. John Cordle in Proceedings Magazine in August.

Nor is the 100-hour work week implausible; divided by a seven-day week, it comes out to a little more than 14 hours per day of work.

And the Navy has already taken some steps to ease the strain on sailors, most notably by putting in place policies to allow those standing watch to get regular and guaranteed breaks for sleep.

In a strategic readiness review commissioned by Spencer and published Thursday, authors recommend against straining and exhausting sailors, regardless of the number of hours worked.

"Sailors being overworked, or perceiving themselves to be overworked, also affects retention, leading to a fleet with less average experience and requiring increased recruiting expense," the review states.

But Spencer said more study is needed to determine exactly how much work sailors are doing today.

"I know Senator McCain says, 'stop the 100 hour work week.' We need to go in and scientifically, with rigor, do a time management study on what a work week looks like," he said.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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