Differences can be day & night
By Steve Staedler
The difference can literally be day and night. For Cal Brockmann, aviation technician and safety representative for Phillip Morris' two Challenger 604 aircraft based at General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee, WI, alternating between day and night shifts can certainly take its toll on overall job performance.
"It's a very big issue," Brockmann said of fatigue brought on by working alternating hours, "especially for those of us on constantly rotating shifts."
But what about those mechanics that work the night shift on a consistent basis? Does fatigue play a role in their job performance as well?
"I don't think so," says Rich Orcholski, a night shift maintenance supervisor for Midwest Express Airlines in Milwaukee. "You just have to get into a routine."
Two aircraft mechanics working opposite shifts, each with different viewpoints on the issue of fatigue. Is there really a right or wrong answer? In both scenarios, valid arguments can be made to support each mechanic's observation. But certainly, various factors do play a role in shaping their views on the issue of fatigue.
Sometimes, size does matter
As Brockmann sees it, a primary cause of fatigue in the workplace can be traced back to one item: the size of his shop. With only five employees on staff, constant rotating between day and night shift is required.
"It's a real problem," he said. "There's really no way around it in our industry. Aircraft come and go at weird hours. Most small shops don't have a lot of people, so you have to rotate them. Then you throw in sick time, school, and vacation."
Brockmann said he and his staff typically are split between working two weeks on days then two weeks on nights - a change that can be difficult to adjust to.
"We are now trying to stay at least a couple weeks on each of the shifts so you get acclimated to that shift," he said. "It seems to help some, but when you're going from an early to a late and a late to an early (shifts), that's when you get in trouble. It takes about three or four days for your [circadian] clock to start ticking again. Sleep deprivation is really a chronic thing in our industry. You have to have checks and balances. If you were not 100 percent on top of the program, hopefully the guy coming in behind you to look at your work is in better shape than you are."
When it comes to working the night shift, Orcholski would have it no other way. He started as an aircraft cleaner a decade ago and has steadily worked himself up through the ranks and, for eight of those years, has worked nights by choice.
"To me, on third shift, the work is a lot better," he said. "You have more of a variety; essentially, there is a different challenge every night."
Now, as a maintenance supervisor, he is responsible for the work accomplished by a team of 15 to 30 mechanics on a nightly basis.
"At break time, we go and play basketball, so that's a lot of activity. Most of the guys get enough sleep, but some of the guys you can tell (they don't), but you say something to them and they're better the next day."
Of course having a large enough pool of mechanics to fill out the night shift for a set length of time is a major factor for Orcholski and his team. Plus, Orcholski points out that their schedule of working eight, 10-hour days then getting six days off, helps to create a more regulated routine as opposed to working five days on and two days off.
"We made it friendlier for the guys, a more attractive shift," he said. "We have some guys who only work night shift. They like to taxi and do all that stuff to the airplane, and on day shift, you don't get to do that very often."
Difference is day and night
Cliff Launius, a maintenance instructor for United Airlines at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport and third-shift worker for the past 14 years, recalled a study completed several years ago that compared the production of aircraft mechanics between the day and night shifts. Launius said the findings revealed that midnight personnel were 40 percent less efficient than their daytime counterparts, which points to fatigue as an issue.
"I know what a chore it can be," he said of working the night shift. "Most who fall under that shift find a way to balance themselves, but it takes a period of time and some are not always successful. Trying to get a good six or seven hours of sleep, then you have your kids and wife at home, sometimes it's very hard."
At least a third of United's estimated 18,000 mechanics work the night shift because that's when most of its planes are on the ground. Although Launius said fatigue can be a concern at times, he believes balancing personal life to professional life plays the most significant factor in a mechanic's overall performance.
Similarly, Leroy Fleischmann, CMSgt at the 440th U.S. Air Force Reserve Unit in Milwaukee who works as a maintenance control operator, said in looking at all the factors that comprise the work, a person's frame of mind is critical in accomplishing a task.
"In my opinion, it's a person's attitude," Fleischmann said. "Normally when they come in positive that, in itself, will keep their mind on the job. There are times when family matters can work heavily on the mind and may distract the individual's performance. That can be more of a hindrance than working an 8- to 10-hour shift."
FAA guidelines revisited
Federal Aviation Administration Regulation 121.377 addresses maintenance personnel duty time limitations. It states that personnel will be relieved from duty "for a period of at least 24 consecutive hours during any seven consecutive days, or the equivalent thereof within any one calendar month."
It's the hope of Jim Sokol, vice president of maintenance and engineering for Southwest Airlines at Dallas' Love Field, that more uniform guidelines on maintenance practices and duty times will soon be established for all airlines to follow.
"Absolutely," Sokol said of fatigue being a concern. "We're always interested in doing anything to enhance safety. It needs to be addressed."
Southwest has worked to develop its own standards addressing personnel fatigue, like attempting to limit shifts to 16 hours, but to fully be successful in reaching those standards, union employees have to buy into that concept, Sokol said.
Is fatigue really an issue?
However, O.V. Delle-Femine, a contract negotiator for the Airline Mechanics Fraternal Association, said through discussions with airlines he represents, fatigue typically does not come up as a critical issue in accomplishing everyday tasks on a 40-hour work week. But, he believes because of the salary range, fatigue can surface when mechanics work overtime to compensate for low wages.
"I never heard our members say they are tired," said Delle-Femine, who represents mechanics for Northwest, Alaska, Mesaba, and Atlantic Coast Airlines, "unless they work overtime. To make a decent living, they just have to work a lot of overtime."
So are there feasible solutions to this issue that appears to have more than two sides?
"I don't think there is a fix," Brockmann said. "The only way to fix the problem is if you had enough personnel that you didn't have to rotate all the time to keep people on a set shift.
"Aside from that, I have no real complaints, it's just the way the business is."