Crew Shortages, Bad Mattresses Causing Navy Surface Sailors to Lose Shut-Eye, Watchdog Says

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Inspects of a berthing space aboard the USS Tripoli
Master chief engineman inspects a berthing space aboard amphibious assault carrier USS Tripoli during the ship’s maintenance availability, Aug. 3, 2023. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kaleb Shultz)

The Navy's surface fleet is still struggling to alleviate fatigue among sailors more than six years after two deadly ship collisions and the service's subsequent pledge to ensure that service members have more predictable sleep and work schedules, according to the Government Accountability Office.

A report released earlier this month by the federal watchdog agency said the Navy has not implemented some of its recommendations from 2021 to address sailor fatigue, which can leave ships vulnerable to accidents and put troops at risk for physical and mental health conditions.

Exhaustion was cited as a major factor in the separate catastrophic collisions in 2017 of the destroyers Fitzgerald and John S. McCain, which together killed 17 sailors, as well as a grounding that same year of the guided missile cruiser Antietam and a non-fatal collision of the guided-missile cruiser Lake Champlain with a South Korean fishing vessel.

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Among the top reasons sailors are getting an average 5.25 hours of sleep a day instead of the desired 7.5 hours, according to the GAO, are crew shortages and uncomfortable mattresses.

"Although the Navy has made progress toward [its goals], it has reported that some ships and ship departments have not met them. Without fully addressing the root causes of fatigue -- such as high workload caused by under-crewing and mattress problems -- the Navy may better manage fatigue but not eradicate it," wrote Cary Russell, the GAO's director of defense capabilities and management, in a required report to Congress.

In the wake of the fatal accidents, the Navy ordered commanders to arrange duty schedules that encouraged sailors to get at least seven hours of sleep on a regular cycle -- scheduling work and rest periods at roughly the same time each day to follow the circadian rhythm.

In 2021, the GAO found that the Navy implemented its policy inconsistently and made eight recommendations on improving its workload, reducing crew shortfalls, and training on the importance of sleep and its relevance to safety and readiness.

But the Navy is still falling short in implementing several of the recommendations, according to the recent report.

Citing Navy officials, the GAO noted that the service struggles to fill the ranks of certain departments on ships, namely engineering and combat systems, which leads to manning shortages.

Smaller vessels such as mine countermeasures ships that have smaller crews and must schedule work with fewer sailors also face difficulties implementing the recommendations, according to the accountability report.

Then there are the problematic mattresses, which the GAO noted that the service said it did "not have a Navy resource sponsor willing to examine" the problem further "and fund mattress improvements across the fleet."

"And so it remains unaddressed," the Navy told the GAO auditors, according to the report. "[Navy] officials added that they have received approval to replace mattresses every three years instead of every five years to help improve conditions, but that the discomfort issue remains."

According to the GAO, Navy officials said the service is developing a plan to fill 100% of required positions within 15 years. Nonetheless, the agency pointed out, there would still be a 15-year period during which the surface fleet will "experience operational risk and sailors will experience health risk from ongoing crew shortfalls."

In a statement accompanying the GAO report, Navy officials said the program implemented after the McCain and Fitzerald collisions, the Crew Endurance and Fatigue Management Program, has significantly improved watch rotations and eased fatigue.

But the Navy noted that, despite all efforts, "the amount of sleep obtained by our sailors at sea has not increased significantly in the past five years," the result of a shortage of qualified crew members, high operational tempo, a lack of monitoring and uncomfortable berths -- including not only the mattresses but rack curtains, which block out light and noise.

The GAO reported that the Navy has made progress on some of its 2021 recommendations.

The Navy said it now collects systemwide fatigue data and has crew targets based on risk assessments and analysis. The service also says it uses the crew targets and requirements to project future personnel needs and has institutionalized the practice of using the requirements to track and report filled positions.

Poor sleep conditions not only affect sailors at sea. Last year, an investigation into suicides aboard the carrier George Washington found, that while it was in the shipyard, chronic sleep deprivation resulting from construction noise, improper temperatures aboard the ship and inadequate sleeping arrangements -- including sailors sleeping in cars or driving long distances to avoid the ship -- may have contributed to the deaths.

While the suicides were not mentioned in the GAO report, Russell noted that sleep deprivation can lead to poor decision-making on or off the job.

"Navy data show that sailor effectiveness declines after prolonged periods without sleep, equating to impairment levels comparable to intoxication," the report noted.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com.

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