Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Getting A Few Winks

There was an outcry after a controller fell asleep, but concerns about tired controllers aren’t new

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association's (NATCA) president Paul Rinaldi issued a statement saying, "One-person shifts are unsafe. Period."
In 1989, the NTSB issued three recommendations to the Secretary of Transportation calling for research, education and revisions to existing regulations regarding required rest periods and duty times. These recommendations were added to the NTSB's Most Wanted List in 1990. In 2011, the issue of fatigue still is on the NTSB's Most Wanted List of Improvements.

The Safety Board noted that the FAA convened a work group to research and propose changes to controller-scheduling policies and practices. The group recommended changes involving increasing the time between shifts. According to the NTSB, the recommendations went nowhere because the FAA decided to pursue a more collaborative approach with the controllers' union and establish its own Fatigue Risk Management Office. The office is sponsoring a study of controller fatigue by the NASA Ames Research Center in collaboration with NATCA that will survey all controllers, and will include an on-site component at a select number of facilities to gather data about controller fatigue. The FAA also has training lessons in place for controllers about fatigue.

In a report on pilot fatigue, Dr. Samuel Strauss of the aerospace medicine division at NASA's Johnson Space Center noted that the term "fatigue" is used to describe a range of experiences including sleepy, tired and exhausted. He reported that fatigue can be created by two major physiological phenomena: sleep loss and circadian rhythm disruption. Dr. Strauss notes that the only effective treatment for fatigue is adequate sleep.

As an example, Dr. Strauss says if an individual normally needs eight hours of sleep to feel completely alert, and gets only six hours of sleep, he or she has two hours of sleep loss. Add more sleep loss over subsequent days, and it accumulates into "sleep debt." Laboratory tests have shown that sleep loss of as little as two hours can produce degraded judgment; degraded situational awareness; degraded decision making and memory; slowed reaction time; decreased work efficiency; lack of concentration; fixation and worsened mood. Our circadian rhythm provides two periods

of maximal sleepiness every 24 hours. These are from about 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Fatigue just might seriously affect you if you disrupt your circadian rhythm, and add to that disruption the kind of sleep debt that might come from changes in work schedules.


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