Industry expert identifies primary fatigue factors

Avatar for Lisa GordonBy Lisa Gordon | May 9, 2019

Estimated reading time 6 minutes, 17 seconds.

It’s no great revelation that fatigue can be deadly in safety-conscious industries.

Although society generally recognizes that being tired on the job impairs performance, a great deal of effort has recently been devoted to delving into the science of fatigue, including analyzing its root causes.

Fatigue levels are impacted by the time of day. Working late at night creates an impairment that Dr. Daniel Mollicone said contributes to fatigue. Jason Pineau Photo

In December 2018, Transport Canada released new fatigue risk management regulations that will govern how air operators prevent, monitor and mitigate fatigue among employees in safety-sensitive positions.

Speaking at the annual Northern Air Transport Association conference in Yellowknife, N.W.T., Dr. Daniel Mollicone summarized the latest fatigue research findings from his firm, Pulsar Informatics.

He told attendees there are three primary fatigue factors that influence safety and performance on the job.

First on the list is what Mollicone called sleep debt. “We all need around eight hours of sleep to recharge,” he said. “If you don’t get the sleep you need on a daily basis, you’re accumulating a sleep debt. That’s a major factor . . . for making mistakes on the job.”

Second, it’s important to recognize that fatigue levels are impacted by the time of day. “Humans are the only species I’m aware of that is not nocturnal, but we pretend to be when we wake up early and stay up late at night. When we do that, we’re working against our biology. That creates an impairment and it is a major factor from a fatigue perspective.”

Finally, the third factor influencing fatigue and its impact on performance is length of duty. “Even when we are well rested, we are good for about 16 hours. Fatigue impairments accelerate after being awake for longer than 17 hours.”

When more than one of these factors is present through operational schedules or lifestyle factors, said Mollicone, they tend to magnify each other.

“In aviation, when you have these multiple factors at play at the same time, they compound. The effect of sleep debt builds each day, and we don’t get used to less sleep–and caffeine does not pay off a sleep debt.”

In fact, Mollicone said his findings indicate that lack of sleep mimics blood alcohol concentration, with fatigue deficits accelerating after being awake for longer than 17 hours. “For example, if you were up at 8 a.m., by 1 a.m. you may experience alertness impairments similar to being drunk,” he said.

And, a lack of sleep can be compounded by our natural circadian rhythm, which promote alertness during the day and sleepiness at night.

During a long shift these factors can snowball, leading to significant safety and performance degradation. Mollicone used the example of hard-braking incidents among truck drivers, which increased as their fatigue levels rose.

He also cited his company’s recently completed study of U.S. aircraft maintenance engineers, where more than 12 million work hours were examined at major airlines. “The study was looking at work shifts under 12 hours versus those over 12 hours. It found more injuries and mistakes happened during the longer shifts. This is a consistent finding over and over again.”

Surprisingly, Mollicone said that a hard day on the job doesn’t necessarily leave us more fatigued.

“The truth is, when you have a hard day of flying, you feel very drained at the end of the day,” he told the NATA crowd. “That’s a real phenomenon, a real feeling. But when we measure with objective tools from a fatigue risk management perspective, what we find is the difficulties you experience during the day don’t tend to change your alertness. So, what we are doing doesn’t have a dramatic impact on our ability to pay attention. A high workload is not nearly as important as the three primary fatigue factors I mentioned first.”

Building a safety case

Mollicone said his findings are based in science and guided by objective data.

As far as Canada’s new flight and duty time (F&DT) regulations are concerned, he added that if “the data says we can do something safely and reliability, we should be able to do it within the context of regulations. That is the opportunity the FRMS [fatigue risk management system] provides.”

Pulsar Informatics is currently working with Air Inuit to create a safety case for a particular route that the carrier serves under the current F&DT regulations. The six-segment trip starts in Montreal and continues to Quebec City, Schefferville, Sept-Iles, Schefferville, Quebec City, and back to Montreal.

Air Inuit hopes to continue flying this route once the new regulations take effect.

“The request is to be able to extend the flight duty period for about an hour through the use of FRMS,” said Mollicone. “So, we’re collecting data on how fatigue impacts the pilots on this route.”

Among the information being gathered are details on pilot sleep patterns and lifestyle factors–such as a young baby at home–that may affect quality of rest.

“We also measure their alertness directly with validated objective assessments,” he continued. “They do a three-minute video game test that measures their alertness. We also ask them to evaluate how alert they feel at any point in their duty day.”

Once the safety case is validated and approved for a particular route, an operator must document all the ongoing procedures they will follow to monitor and mitigate for fatigue.

Mollicone invited operators to connect with NATA to put forth cases they would like to see evaluated in the context of the new FRMS framework.

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