Reference number
Published date
Affected operation/industry
Concern subject type
Reporter's deidentified concern

The reporter’s main concern centres around the lack of breaks afforded to VTS operators on a 12-hour shift. The reporter believes that while [Operator] provide a single 30-minute break with two additional 10 minute rest pauses in a 12 hour shift, this is inadequate to manage potential fatigue in the VTS environment. Further, there is an expectation that operators will arrive 15 minutes early for their shifts; extending the time operators are working without a break.

In addition, the reporter states that there is no enforcement, supervision, or record monitoring to ensure that operators are taking their break. The reporter states that many controllers either do not take their break, or do not take the full 30 minutes allocated to them and believes that these breaks should not be at the operators discretion, as it is well documented that decision making is affected when fatigued.

The reporter advised that operators falling asleep during their shift occurs on a regular basis, and on at least one occasion, a senior manager has observed a controller asleep during a day shift. The result was the operator being disciplined, rather than the event triggering the implementation of a FRMS.

The reporter is concerned that a culture exists within the department that allows operators to take their meal breaks at workstations while continuing to monitor and interact with shipping traffic. It is reported that taking breaks at workstations is having a negative effect on mental health and employees have notified management that this is occurring.

The reporter is further concerned that the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) is not conducting adequate oversight of [Operator's] staffing levels and fatigue management. The reporter believes that [Operator], by operating in accordance with rosters prepared by [external company] are not complying with IALA G1045 (Staffing levels at VTS centres) and AMSA have either not detected this or have not enforced [Operator] to comply.

The reporter further states that the lack of staff, due to budget constraints, is contributing to high operator workload. [Name] VTS operators are typically monitoring upwards of 50 vessels at one time. In addition, operators are also actioning emails, taking phone calls and making calculations, completing approximately two and a half actions per minute over a 12-hour shift. While there may be another operator in the room, each operator is monitoring a separate traffic area, and does not typically have the ability to assist. On occasion when the other operator does have the capacity to assist, it is unreasonable to expect that they will be able to immediately assess traffic information and gain the situational awareness required to effectively control the board.

The reporter is concerned that the high workloads combined with potential fatigue will inevitably lead to a lapse in concentration, poor decision-making or failing to monitor and detect developing shipping situations. The consequences of which could be catastrophic in regards to a grounding of a ship within [Locations] monitored by Port VTS operations along the [Location] coast.

Named party's response

- [Operator] has engaged an external provider to conduct a state wide VTS Workplace Review. Part of this review includes current hours of work, work loads, rostering practices including health and safety information of each VTS centre

- In December 2021, [Location A] VTS centre has moved to a three person day and night roster to assist with the high workloads in the centre, this has further enabled the staff to take a meal break

-  In September 2021, VTS operations have been split between [Location B] and [Location C]

- [Location B] is continuing to operate with two per shift and are able to cover their meal breaks between the rostered operators.

-  Similarly, [Location C] is able to provide operational and meal break coverage with three per shift

- Each centre manager monitors and actively encourages staff to take a meal break. Purpose built break out rooms have also been implemented to encourage VTS operators to take a break away from their console.

Regulator's response

From the information provided it is not evident there are any safety concerns and a specific on-site audit was not considered necessary. Further, as outlined in the attached, [Operator]:

- Commenced preparing a specific guidance on managing fatigue while on shift and during recovery away from work in 2020 to compliment organisation wide documentation. 

- Identified an opportunity for improvement with regards to implementing a process for ongoing awareness to mitigate potential issues surrounding musculoskeletal problems, visual fatigue and stress of VTSOs. This is planned to be incorporated with the annual proficiency tests for VTSOs.

AMSA looks forward to seeing the outcomes from these two initiatives at the next interim audit of [Operator] associated with their appointment as a VTS Authority.

ATSB comment

Although the concerns raised through REPCON are that of the reporter and not the ATSB; throughout the course of ATSB Investigation [number], the ATSB confirms that there is evidence to indicate that VTS controllers either do not take their designated 30 minute meal break, or do not take the full 30 minutes allocated to them throughout a 12-hour shift. However, the ATSB notes that [Operator] is taking steps to address the concerns raised in the REPCON report.