Fatigue in the Workplace

Fatigue in the workplace has been in the headlines a lot lately thanks to some incidents involving air traffic controllers falling asleep on the job. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt recently announced changes to air traffic controller scheduling that includes an extra hour of rest between shifts and greater availability of managers during late night and early morning shifts. It also prohibits air traffic controllers from switching shifts without the required nine-hour rest. In addition, the FAA is instituting a Call to Action to stress the need for all air traffic personnel to adhere to the highest professional standards including the development of a fatigue education program to teach controllers the risks of fatigue and how to avoid it.

Here we go again — another example a reactive versus proactive mentality when it comes to regulating aviation. The FAA published a document in January 2010 titled “Answering the Call to Action on Airline Safety and Pilot Training.” It discussed the dangers of fatigue and included steps the FAA would take to address pilot fatigue. In September of last year, the FAA issued an NPRM on changes to pilot rest requirements.

That’s right. In 2010 the FAA knew the danger of fatigue in aviation and decided to address it by changing pilot rest requirements.

Now, because of some air traffic controllers falling asleep on the job, it is focused on air traffic controller duty time.

Hmmm, is it just me or has maintenance been left out of the loop? I don’t see a Call to Action to address mechanic fatigue. I don’t see a training program being developed by the FAA to teach mechanics the “risks of fatigue and how to avoid it.” Is it just waiting for an accident to happen to act?

The regulations on duty limits for mechanics are limited to say the least. But they have been in the news as well lately. Unfortunately, it’s not for a push for stricter regulations.

On May 18, 2010 the FAA issued a legal interpretation regarding maintenance duty limits as they are defined in FAR 121.377.

On April 15 of this year, the FAA issued FAA 2011-0367. There is quite a bit of information in the proposal, so I encourage all fellow mechanics to go to www.regulations.gov and enter FAA 2011-0367 in the “Enter Keyword or ID” window and read the document and all supporting documents and comments for yourselves. The deadline for comment is June 14!

Basically, on December 13, 2010  the Aeronautical Repair Station Association (ARSA) send a letter to the Office of the Chief Counsel of the FAA asking it to rescind the legal interpretation from May 18, 2010 saying “We contest the FAA’s assertion that:

Today, we would not view as compliant a schedule that provides over the course of eight weeks for four days off followed by 48 straight days of duty followed by four more days off. Such a work schedule that generally provides for an average of one day off over several weeks cannot be said to be ‘equivalent’ to the more specific standard requiring one day off out of every seven days.

At best, that ‘interpretation’ overlooks the plain language of the rule; otherwise, it impermissibly represents a clear deviation from longstanding FAA construction and application of its regulation.

As a result, ARSA respectfully asks the FAA to retract its May 18, 2010 interpretation.”

The letter goes on to list several legal arguments defending ARSA’s opposition to the legal interpretation.

I can understand ARSA’s argument. From a legal point of view (and the association is headed by attorneys) ARSA makes some valid arguments on rescinding the legal interpretation.

But where is common sense in all of this? There are strict duty time limits for pilots and air traffic controllers (that just got stricter), but only a few basic duty time limits exist for mechanics. So the FAA says that working a mechanic 24 days straight and then giving him or her four days off in a row does not meet the intent of FAR 121.377. Is that legal interpretation so bad?

The bottom line is that the FAA can’t regulate common sense. The regulations are a minimum we must adhere to. It is up to us and our employers to set the bar higher. We need to recognize our limits and have the courage to just say no when fatigue starts to affect our performance. That is easy to say, but when it comes to some situations, we are forced to work under the effects of fatigue. In those cases, we should be putting some safety nets in place (such as having a second pair of eyes double checking our work) to avoid letting our fatigue lead to an incident or accident.

What are your thoughts on maintenance duty limits? Do we need stricter regulations or is the status quo enough?

We appreciate your feedback!

Thanks for reading!

Joe Escobar  |  Editorial Director