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Scientific scrutiny needed in pilot scheduling regulations

As we recently reported, new regulations to standardize time limits for pilots flying across the European Union (EU) were proposed “in an attempt to reduce fatigue and enhance aviation safety”. Following the announcement, organizations like the British Airlines Pilots Association (BALPA), were quick to criticize the regulations, pointing out that pilots could end up landing planes after being awake for as long as 22 hours.

BBC news now reports that the proposed regulations were voted down by the Members of European Parliament (MEP) transport committee last week. The rejection may have been influenced by a Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) incident report which indicated that both pilots of a recent UK-bound flight had fallen asleep at the same time. The report suggested that the incident was a result of longer shifts creating “an insufficient opportunity for pilots to rest” but regarded it as “isolated”.  BALPA, however, might suggest otherwise as a survey conducted on their behalf revealed that over 50% of commercial pilots admitted to “having fallen asleep on the flight deck” and almost 30% having woken up “to find the other pilot asleep”.

A BALPA spokesperson commented to BBC that “rejection of the new rules reflected “pilots’ concerns about the way the rules had been put together without proper scientific scrutiny and underpinning evidence”.  Pre-departure procedures for flights involve rigorous checks and balances to make sure flight equipment is in optimal form before take off, but what about a pilot check?In the case of this British airbus flight, it was revealed that one of the pilots had only slept a total of five hours over the previous two nights, and this occurred under the supposedly more stringent existing UK rules. Regulations are important, but they need to be built around meaningful data, starting with a real understanding of the current state of pilot fatigue and a validated analysis of schedule change benefits and implications.

Falling asleep at the wheel is easier than you think

Fatigued workers could be micro-sleeping, and causing major accidents.

Scientists have indicated that fatigued drivers are capable of falling asleep behind the wheel for seconds at a time without evening knowing it. A few seconds might not seem like a long time, but in a fast moving vehicle or dangerous piece of equipment, it’s enough for something serious to happen.

ABC news put this study to the test in a recent experiment under supervision of the Liberty Mutual Research Institute, where this phenomenon called ‘micro sleep’ is studied. Reporter, Ron Claiborne, deprived himself of sleep and then attempted to operate a vehicle. The results were both surprising and alarming – have a watch:

 

 

In the video, Ron admits to falling asleep ‘a couple of times’ and decides to end the experiment. Luckily for Ron, he was driving on a closed and supervised course because the experiment data actually showed that he had fallen asleep not twice, but twenty-two times. Workers in 24/7 operations aren’t usually supervised by a team of scientists while on the job, so what would falling asleep twenty-two times mean to someone operating heavy equipment or about to drive themselves home after finishing a long shift?

Unpaid interns at the centre of an epidemic

Fatigue is an epidemic in our society. In a study conducted by the CDC, over 40% of 18 to 25 year-olds have reported unintentionally falling asleep during the day at least once in the last month, and 7% of 25 to 35 year-olds have nodded off while driving in the same period of time.

In 2011, Andy Ferguson, a 22 year-old student at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT), died in a head-on collision after working back-to-back shifts as an unpaid intern.  In a recent article by CBC’s Kathy Tomlinson, a renewed sense of sadness and outrage surfaces.

Andy had worked 16 of the last 24 hours of his life.

Moritz Erardt, a 21-year-old exchange student from Germany, collapsed in his shower and died last month.  He worked through the night 8 times over two weeks leading up to his death.  He did this in an effort to secure a position at Merrill Lynch, which was just about to be offered to him.  He was known as the ‘superstar’ of the internship program.

In Kathy’s article, Claire Seaborn of the Canadian Intern Association, mentions high youth unemployment as a potential cause for interns feeling the pressure to work long hours.  This is one of many pressures students face in their day-to-day reality.   Students and unpaid interns are hit hard by managing a full-time school schedule, perhaps a part-time job or two, and an internship to gain experience.  Top off this breakneck schedule with the added pressure of exams and you have a formula for increased risk of accident and health complications.

This is not just a student issue. How many times have you put off sleep to get something done?

While you might get away with being tired and clinging to a caffeine crutch to get you through the day, you are playing a dangerous game that goes well beyond having bags under your eyes.   Fatigue is attributed to an increased risk of accident not to mention health problems that range from diabetes to depression and obesity.

The problem doesn’t stop there. The more chronically fatigued you become, the harder it is for your body to get back on track. You can trick your body to thinking it is rested if you “catch up” by sleeping 8 hours in a night, but all that means is that you are less exhausted than the day before.

It is time to take health and wellness off the backburner. Addressing the issue of fatigue-related accidents goes beyond the Bank of America’s inquiry into their employee policies. This is a good start, but we all need to take a long hard look at our expectations of ourselves and those around us.

Why we need to stop using the term human error in accident investigations

Vancouver airport near miss

In April 2013, human error by an airport controller at Vancouver Airport mixed up the ID’s of two planes almost causing a serious accident. Luckily, the mix-up was solved and no one was killed. When investigating the cause of the incident at Vancouver Airport, the Transport Safety Board of Canada (TSBC), used our scientifically validated Fatigue Avoidance Scheduling Tool (FAST) to identify fatigue as the cause for human error. By reviewing the airport controllers actual schedule, FAST was able to identify that the controller did not obtain sufficient sleep before their shift and was therefore fatigued at the time of the incident.

By using objective data, TSBC now understands exactly what caused the human error and that ‘fatiguing schedules’ can greatly increase the likelihood of human error occurring.

So why are we still only referring to ‘human error’ as a cause?

In many accidents, investigators would run a series of investigations to establish that it was human error that was the cause.

A September 2012 study by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) proves that self-reported studies, similar to the ones conducted to establish human error, are not accurate. The results showed that people do not normally feel fatigued until they lose 30% of their reaction time due to sleep loss. That is equivalent to the reaction time of people who are legally drunk at 0.08% blood alcohol.

Objective data is needed for 24/7 organizations to improve safety

In order for high-risk organizations such as aviation, air traffic control, healthcare or nuclear industry where reducing accident risk is imperative to the health, safety and wellbeing of their employees, objective data must be used to identify the root cause of human error in accidents.

The most accurate and validated way to improve safety is with our fatigue management technology – FAST and Readiband. This software is the “officially sanctioned” US Department of Defence fatigue analysis system.

FAST used to pinpoint the root of human error

FAST is our user-friendly scientifically validated software that has been developed for schedulers and planners to identify areas of fatigue risk in employee rosters. The data can then be used for objective comparisons and optimal schedules may be selected for proposed work periods or mission critical events. FAST is used by major accident investigators in North America and Australia including The US National Transportation Safety Board,  The US Federal Railroad Administration and the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.

Readiband is a proactive strategy to improve safety

On the other hand, Readiband can be used as a proactive strategy for organizations to improve workplace safety.  By wearing the Readiband, sleep data is collected and summarized in clear visual reports containing fatigue analytics that allow administrators to manage fatigue risk.

FAST used to identify fatigue as a factor in recent Vancouver airport incident

Our Fatigue Avoidance Scheduling Tool (FAST), was recently used by The Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) to identify fatigue as a factor in an April 2013 incident at Vancouver Airport. FAST identified that the airport controller did not obtain sufficient sleep before their shift. In addition, the airport controller’s schedule did not permit enough adaptation time, requiring the controller to sleep during the day in an attempt to be adequately rested for the night shift.

The report says the controller mixed up the ID of a 737 and the Jazz plane waiting to take off and ordered the 737 to take off from the same runway where the Jazz plane was waiting. The confusion set off a delay in getting the planes off the ground, which forced an incoming West Jet plane to circle the runway.

FAST for Retrospective Analysis

By uploading an employee’s schedule into FAST, users can identify if an employee’s schedule could have caused fatigue and increased the likelihood of an incident or accident.

Further, if the employee was wearing our Readiband technology before the incident/accident actual sleep data could be imported into FAST for a more comprehensive analysis.

How does FAST work? 

FAST is our user-friendly scientifically validated software that has been developed for schedulers and planners to identify areas of fatigue risk in employee rosters. FAST allows organizations to upload rosters and generates visual predictions of performance along with tables of estimated effectiveness scores. The data can then be used for objective comparisons and optimal schedules may be selected for proposed work periods or mission critical events.