Industry Viewpoint: Managing Fatigue Without a Duty Time Rule

Much as we might need one, it’s unlikely that mechanics will see an air carrier maintenance duty time rule any time soon. Although the NTSB first recommended such a rule in 1997, and added it to its Most Wanted List in 1999, the FAA’s position is that maintenance fatigue is too complex an issue to regulate and that training and education are sufficient. Notwithstanding the FAA’s intransigence, the NTSB re-asserted in January of this year its Most Wanted safety recommendation that duty time limitations be established for air carrier maintenance workers.

I agree with the FAA that maintenance fatigue is a complex issue and I am pleased to have been invited to work with its Maintenance Fatigue Working Group. Fatigue in maintenance is related not only to inadequate sleep and rest but also to other factors such as light, noise, temperature, and even vibration. Repetitive tasks – especially the often mind-numbing (but critical) task of scouring large areas of aircraft skin for small cracks – can lead to fatigue. But I disagree that complexity is a reason to avoid duty time regulation; it just means that those regulations will still need to be coupled with training and education. And while I firmly believe that a duty rule is necessary, we need to deal with the current situation as it is. And pray that a fatal accident is not the catalyst that finally forces the FAA to act.

It is beyond dispute that fatigue in mechanics can affect the quality of maintenance. So the question is, what can mechanics and their supervisors do to minimize the impacts of fatigue on maintenance in the absence of regulation?  

First of all, as professionals, mechanics are responsible for coming to work with adequate rest to perform their jobs. Yes, I know, with wages slashed, mechanics are working either overtime or second jobs (or both), and asking them to police themselves is asking a lot. But that’s what air safety demands and the public expects. Eight hours of sleep is what is normally necessary to be well-rested and that is what mechanics should be striving to get before every work day.

Mechanics need to be aware of the symptoms of fatigue and notify their supervisors when they need a break. Shift work – particularly rotating shifts or midnight shifts – can result in chronic fatigue if not properly managed by the mechanic. I know how hard it is to have a family life when working the midnight shift; sleeping eight hours before your shift means not seeing your school-age children all day since you get home as they’re heading for school and should be going to sleep as they’re getting home. But just because it’s hard doesn’t give us an excuse to come to work with inadequate rest.

Supervisors must be sensitive to issues of fatigue among their workers, they must be able to recognize signs of fatigue and pull workers off a job if they feel they are not fit to perform the job, and they must be willing to encourage workers to speak up if they feel fatigued. Sometimes a short break may be enough, other times a longer rest will be necessary.

Until a rule is issued, airline passengers will have to rely on the professionalism of mechanics and supervisors to prevent fatigue from affecting aircraft maintenance.

John Goglia has 40 years of experience in the aviation industry. He was the first NTSB board member to hold an FAA aircraft mechanic’s certificate. He can be reached at gogliaj@yahoo.com.

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