Sunday, March 27, 2011

Fatigue and Staffing

If I remember my Bible stories correctly, sleeping while on guard duty was punishable by death for Roman soldiers. Sometimes, it happened anyway. I assume the supervisor that was supposedly sleeping at Washington National Tower will suffer a somewhat less-harsh discipline.

The point is, you can order people not to fall asleep but they will anyway. The real question is, “What are you willing to do about it?”.

Ironically, I was at a safety conference in Las Vegas, attending a lecture about fatigue, when all this happened. I probably don’t have to spell it all out for you. You can already guess what was said. Shift work causes fatigue. And as we have since learned, this supervisor was on his fourth night shift in a row.

For those that don’t know, the vast majority of controllers work rotating shifts. The most popular rotation (now and during my career) is called the 2-2-1 (two-two-one.) That’s two evening shifts (typically 3PM-11PM) followed by two day shifts (typically 7AM-3PM), followed by a midnight shift (typically 11PM-7AM). Quite literally, it can kill you if you do it long enough. But that’s another story. For now, let’s focus on the short-term damage.

Shift work makes you sleepy. The 2-2-1 rotation makes you sleepy all the time. In the briefing at Communicating for Safety, the worst periods for controllers are right where you would expect them to be -- towards the end of an evening shift and during most of a midnight shift. As a matter of fact, the briefer at the conference went to great pains to show that -- at the end of a midnight shift -- test subjects were dysfunctional. That’s dysfunctional on a level equivalent to being half drunk. The average subject tested in the same range of functionality as people with a blood alcohol content of .04.

I hope you’ll think about that for a moment. If a controller showed up for work with a blood alcohol content of .04 the FAA would try to fire them. Yet, on a daily basis, controllers have to work shifts just as impaired. There’s no way around it. Somebody has to work during those time periods. As I said earlier, the question becomes, “What are you willing to do about it?”. So far, the answer has been, “Not much.”. The briefing did offer mitigation strategies (mostly napping.) But at the very beginning, it was noted that all recommendations were based on a 40-hour workweek.

Who says controllers should work a 40-hour week? Oddly, when I brought it up, most people were thinking in the opposite direction -- the briefing didn’t say anything (that I remember) about overtime. If you think a 2-2-1 is tough, try a 3-2-1; three evenings, two days and a midnight. I have seen controllers work overtime midnights; a 2-2-2.

I’d be remiss in pointing out the truth if I didn’t take this opportunity to point out how controllers were demonized (much like other public employees are right now) back in the days of the Bush Administration. Many of the “outrageous” salaries controllers were earning at the time were inflated by overtime. Because the FAA chronically understaffs the air traffic control system, controllers work a lot of overtime. All of a sudden, the frame of reference changes how you view overtime doesn’t it? Instead of being at work “half drunk” once a week, overtime can make it happen twice a week. Let it go on long enough and it happens all the time -- chronic fatigue.

(Yes, I know “half drunk” is a poor choice of words. I don’t write for idiots or to avoid political “gotcha”s taken out of context.)

As criminal as this will seem to some, I haven’t even touched on the real crime yet. That would be staffing an important facility like Washington National with only one person. Actually, it doesn’t have to be a big, important place to prove how stupid it is for a controller to work alone. It can be stupid at a small, sleepy airport. It can even be stupid to have two controllers on duty but let one of them take a long break.

Where do you draw the line? Having three controllers on duty to work two airplanes on a midnight shift is expensive. What are you willing to do about it?

After the Lexington crash, the FAA started enforcing its rule to have two controllers on duty. But they didn’t have the staffing to do it. So that forced them to schedule overtime. And that -- as we have already discussed -- leads to sleepy controllers.

For those not in the aviation industry, I hope the links show you that none of this is new or unknown in this industry. We all work crazy shifts. Pilots, mechanics, controllers and everyone else works when our bodies say sleep. We work 40 hour weeks just like people that get to work normal shifts -- and sleep at normal times. Controllers have it bad enough but pilots and flight attendants are crossing time zones too.

A simple idea like working half shifts on the midnights would help combat the problem. But it would just be another issue our employers would use to beat us up with during contract negotiations. I mean, after all, look what happened to those lazy teachers that only work 9 months out of the year -- for the outrageous sum of $50,000.

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Don Brown
March 27, 2011

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