Pilots and attendants face sleep-debt issue

The aviation industry is marked by many shortages - pilots, mechanics, engineers and air traffic controllers.

And sleep.

For decades, fatigue among those who fly, guide and maintain planes has been implicated in crashes that have claimed thousands of lives (and many more that have simply been blamed on "pilot error.") It's anybody's guess how many so-called near-misses are due to errors caused by fatigue, or the true cost of the problem both in monetary and human terms.

Around the world, governments, regulating agencies, airlines and unions are beginning to seriously research fatigue and to implement programs to minimize its effect.

Other workers should pay attention, because the forces that have left the aviation sector in a deep-sleep debt are at work elsewhere, and the solutions in this industry can provide a template for managing a problem that has plagued working humans since the discovery of fire extended the workday beyond sunset.

And the problem is likely to get much worse as these workplace issues persist: Shortages of trained personnel, the push for improved employee productivity in light of economic problems and aging of the workforce.

"There is no doubt fatigue issues are growing," says Capt. Brian Boucher, chair of the technical and safety division of the Air Canada Pilots Association, which represents 3,100 pilots.

"One of the ways to mitigate (the shortage of pilots) is to make the pilots you have fly more."

And that has happened, he says, with the pilot's normal work month of 72 to 80 flying hours now stretched to 80 to 100 hours.

Another is to stretch out a pilot's work life - keeping them in the cockpit past the time when they would normally retire. Boucher's been flying for 34 years, 29 of them with Air Canada, and has plenty of personal experience with fatigue - enough to know that older pilots need more time to recover.

Work weeks have also been stretched for mechanics, flight attendants and air traffic controllers. Overtime regularly eats into rest time.

Research has shown working irregular hours and long shifts, doing monotonous work and exposure to vibration all increase fatigue. So do dimly lit, comfortable environments with high temperatures, lots of noise and tasks needing sustained attention - all hallmarks of an aviation career.

Fatigue is worsened when lack of sleep is coupled with a disruption to the body's circadian rhythm, which regulates high and low energy periods throughout the day - common among flight and ground crews as well as controllers.

And it's also magnified by jetlag. One U.S. sleep researcher estimates 96 per cent of airline pilots and flight attendants operate in a permanent state of jetlag.

The connection between fatigue and loss in performance is clear. As alertness suffers, vital functions slow down - judgment, decisions, memory, reaction time and mood.

Acute fatigue is caused by a recent sleep loss or intense mental or physical activity over a short period of time. It is easily remedied by a good quality sleep.

But working conditions frequently prevent that, so pilots and attendants accumulate a sleep debt, which can translate into chronic fatigue.

The greatest workload for pilots and attendants comes at the end of a flight, during runway approach and landing. It's the most likely time an accident will occur - but the crew is also at its most tired and is least able to concentrate.

There's little doubt that fatigue also contributes to rates of injury and illness.

One U.S. researcher found in the early '90s that a group of pilots and flight attendants had nearly twice the number of lost workdays, illness and injury as private-sector workers. And their injuries were twice as bad (sprains, strains and broken bones are the most common).

Slowed reaction time isn't helpful when a suitcase comes crashing down on your head, a serving cart mashes into your leg, or turbulence throws you around the cabin or turns pots, pans, dishes and trays into airborne projectiles.

And it certainly gets in the way of quick and accurate decisions needed to avert a crash when equipment fails - or a crew member has made an earlier error in judgment.

As well, the fatigue coupled with flight environments increases risk of contracting infectious disease. Low humidity in flight dries out the mucous membranes, the body's first line of defence against viruses and germs. Recirculated air increases chances of breathing in a pathogen.

Jetlag raises stress hormone levels, increases blood pressure, causes irregular heartbeat and swollen limbs, and magnifies depression.

Lack of breaks and missed meals only worsen the situation.

With an estimated 1.5 billion people travelling by air each year and billions of dollars of goods transported, fatigue in the air industry is a public health and safety issue.

Australia is a world leader in fatigue risk management in transportation industries. Australia's Civil Aviation Safety Authority has said regulatory agencies have to get beyond considering fatigue as a function only of the amount of time spent working.

Other factors that need to be considered are type and intensity of work, time of day (particularly the times when circadian rhythms are telling the body to sleep), the physiological need for sleep and recovery times from fatigue.

Transport Canada is launching a pilot project this fall for aviation maintenance workers to test a proposed fatigue risk-management program, and Capt. Boucher reports progress in implementing a similar program for pilots, but "not for at least a year."

For pilots, says Boucher, that might mean looking at work schedules over longer periods of time - 30 days, 60 days, even 90 days - to ensure adequate recovery time after arduous flights.

In a way, aviation workers are lucky. Their fatigue problems are a public safety issue. Public money is spent on studies to try to find out what causes the problem and how to solve it. Legislators and regulators become involved.

Nobody believes anymore that it's merely part of "working conditions" negotiations between airlines and their employees or their unions.

Neither should it be for workers in other industries who routinely run up a sleep debt.

The root causes and solutions to fatigue-related issues in the aviation industry could provide a template that can be used to prevent or ameliorate the problem in other sectors.

Once fatigue risk-management programs are demonstrated to help the airline industry, perhaps their benefits will be extended to miners, police officers, firefighters, assembly-line workers and anyone else in Canada who has to work long hours, at repetitive tasks or lots of overtime.

When that happens, we can all sleep easier.

(Sharon Adams can be reached at sharon@businessedge.ca)