07 April 2020

Right now, thousands of returned travellers are being quarantined in hotel rooms across Australia, in some conditions a Sydney doctor has described as “worse than prison”.

“They have cramped rooms and windows that don’t open, no balcony and are not allowed to leave even for some fresh air and exercise,” Dr Paul Finlay told the Guardian at the weekend.

Confined space is something that submarine personnel know only too well. So too is artificial light, keeping an unusual schedule and being away from family and friends.

Both situations are challenging environments, but life in a submarine – at depths of up to 200 metres – is also secretive, often dangerous, and its occupants can go for months without sunlight.

The work requires a lot of co-ordination, life-and-death decisions, sustained attention, high levels of teamwork and – at times – can be excruciatingly monotonous.

University of South Australia (UniSA) sleep researchers have been examining how submarine environments can impact fatigue and if there is an ideal sleep-work pattern and environment.

“It’s about finding better work-rest patterns in submarine environments so that work productivity and wellbeing are in balance,” says Professor Siobhan Banks, who is Co-Director of the Behaviour-Brain-Body Research Centre at UniSA.

Prof Banks and her team are about to embark on a large study funded by the Defence Science Technology (DST) Group to look at the issue of fatigue within submarine teams in 24/7 environments.

“Across all maritime environments, what you see is around-the-clock, watch keeping schedules. It is a unique type of shift work, where people have to be very vigilant for long periods of at a time, even in non-combat situations.

“This requires high cognitive demand and often involves working through their own biological low in terms of alertness,” Prof Banks says.

Performing monotonous tasks is a different type of stress and submarine personnel often have to shift from high pressure tasks to monotonous tasks.

Factor in the isolation, the distance from family and friends, sharing confined spaces, and sleeping at unusual times and the result is invariably sleep deprivation.

“Lack of sleep not only affects submarine workers in terms of their work, but also psychologically,” Prof Banks says. “Fatigue can lead to impaired cognitive function and mood disturbance, putting both the employer and worker at risk.”

The researchers hope to find an optimal work-rest framework for submarine teams that can be extrapolated to other workplaces, including control room operators and emergency services personnel.

The UniSA team includes sleep researchers Dr Raymond Matthews, as well as industrial design researcher Dr Peter Schumacher and biomechanics researchers Dr Francois Fraysee and Dr Nathan Daniell.

“There is a lack of research examining sleep and circadian rhythms with task-related fatigue and mental workload, particularly in maritime environments. We hope to address this gap,” Prof Banks says.

Photo by Michael Stifter

Media contact: Candy Gibson office +61 8 8302 0961 mobile: +61 434 605 142

Lead researcher: Professor Siobhan Banks office: +61 8 8302 1712 mobile: +61 423 593 069
email: siobhan.banks@unisa.edu.au


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