A couple of drinks may cause ships to sink according to guest lecturer Dr. Jonathan Howland

Press Release - for immediate use

Nov. 27, 2000

UNC Highway Safety Research Center CHAPEL HILL

Low doses of alcohol may hinder the job performance of commercial sailors who don't realize they are impaired, according to a new study by Dr. Jonathan Howland of Boston University who lectured on the topic at UNC-CH on November 28, 2000. The seminar was co-sponsored by the UNC Highway Safety Research Center and the UNC Injury Prevention Research Center.

Howland's study involved conducting randomized trials of the effects of 0.04 blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels on maritime academy cadets operating a simulator of a commercial ship's power plant. The cadets were engineering students in their senior year at Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay, Mass. All had previous experience on the simulator.

Study participants were given vodka and tonic, or a placebo drink of just tonic, and then randomly chosen to guide the power plant simulator through one of four equally difficult scenarios. Each scenario began with the ship at a normal state and then introduced a malfunction within the first 15 to 30 seconds.

"We were measuring how quickly the participants could figure out a problem and then fix it," Howland said.

The study found that those who were given alcohol took approximately 150 seconds longer to correct the problem. What does this mean in the real world?

"If you're in the middle of the Pacific and it's a beautiful day and you won't see land or another ship for several days, then it probably doesn't matter. But if you're at the mouth of the Mississippi and headed for a bridge, it could be bad," said Howland, who pointed out that when a ship engine stalls, the vessel cannot be steered or slowed.

Investigating the effects of 0.04 BAC on the performance of commercial sailors also has real-world significance because this is the legal BAC limit set by the U.S. Department of Transportation for commercial ship operation.

Howland said that many study participants were unaware of their own impairment at low BAC levels. He added that this could pose workforce problems since employees may have good intentions but unknowingly work while impaired. Low BAC levels would also be difficult for co-workers or supervisors to detect.

Howland said it would be helpful to come up with some sort of an objective measure of 'fitness for duty' that could appraise all sources of impairment including low BAC levels, sleep deprivation, over-the-counter drug use (such as antihistamines that cause drowsiness) or slow functioning due to hangovers.

"If I'm bringing planes into JFK Airport, I should be in shape every time I'm on duty," said Howland, who is in the process of testing the effectiveness of such a test.

"We're trying to see whether our test can distinguish between who is dosed (with low alcohol levels) and who is not dosed and also whether it correlates with the participants' simulator performance scores," he said.

Ultimately, Howland's research on low BAC levels and mariner performance is really an investigation into a larger research question, he said.

"That question is: In any operating system, what are the unexplored sources of error?" he queried.

"Our theory is that most error in any given operating system comes from normative and legal behaviors, but that most corporate policy and public policy is aimed at deviance," he said. "They're looking for the alcoholics and drug addicts and people who are abusing substances. If they really want to reduce error in the system, they have to look at the role that normal and legal drinking behaviors play in system error. Once you realize that your problems are coming from your good workers who occasionally have a bad day, then you've got to change your policies to something that allows them to continue to be in the system but in a way that's safe."

Another part of Howland's study involves researching the effects of hangovers on cognitive functioning. Using similar simulation scenarios as the 0.04 study, Howland is measuring the problem-solving skills of cadets the day after they have been dosed to a 0.10 blood alcohol level. He is working with cadets at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, Maine, and at Kalmar Maritime Academy in Kalmar, Sweden.

"It looks like there are definite hangover affects on cognitive functioning," Howland said of the research, which is expected to be completed by January 2002.

The studies are funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Alcoholic Beverage Medical Research Foundation.

For more information on Howland's lecture, contact Emily Smith at (919) 962-7803 or Ingrid Bou-Saada at (919) 843-6754.

Media Contacts

Caroline Dickson

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