Fatigue vs. Function

May 1, 2007
The damaging effects of fatigue on mechanics’ performance and safety

You are nearing the end of your sixth workday in a row, and you have been working diligently for the past 11 hours with possibly only a few breaks and a short lunch. As you start to feel a bit irritated, you remember that last night’s sleep was not what dreams are made of. What you may not realize is that what you are experiencing are the effects of fatigue, and if the symptoms persist, it may start to have an effect on your work performance, putting yourself and those who ride in the aircraft you are servicing in danger.

There is nothing wrong with a strong work ethic, but there is a point when working hard can mean hardly working. It is a mechanic’s responsibility to show up for his or her shift well rested and ready to perform. When fatigued, the quality of work and level of productivity is compromised. Physical or mental fatigue leads to immediate safety concerns and potentially long-term health effects.

Fatigue’s negative effects can be dangerous in numerous situations. When fatigued, a person is often tired, lacking initiative, and doesn’t pay as much attention to detail. When repairing an aircraft attention to detail is not an option, rather an obligation.

Working when fatigued can be very challenging in the hangar. Fatigue can reduce a mechanic’s ability to make good decisions, do complex planning or tasks, impair communication skills, and increase forgetfulness. These are all qualities that are dangerous to behold when working in the hangar. Aircraft mechanics perform maintenance duties to ensure that an aircraft can be considered airworthy. When working fatigued you are putting yourself and countless others in danger.

Many things can lead to fatigue, and knowing what your triggers are is just the beginning.

It may be hard not to show up for your sixth day of work a little groggy, because it may be the direct cause of your fatigued state. Long work hours or extensive work that requires a large amount of physical or mental activity can be considered the leading causes for aircraft mechanic fatigue.

Matters may get worse if mechanics are not given enough time in between shifts to get enough rest before starting up again. Chances of fatigue are increased even more if the shift being worked is at night, because it can have adverse effects on circadian rhythms.

Circadian rhythms are cues to your body regarding when to wake up and when to sleep, forming your body’s biological clock. These cues are influenced mainly by the rising and setting of the sun. It is possible for a person to adjust this biological clock, but it is not typical and can take several weeks or months. If these rhythms are interrupted frequently by shift work, the result may be chronic fatigue or even health problems.

One may think that eight hours of sleep any time of day would be sufficient. This is entirely untrue because of circadian rhythms. The truth is that sleep during the day is often of a much lower quality than sleep obtained during night hours. In addition, circadian rhythms trigger your body to perform better during daytime verses night. So you know what causes fatigue, but how do you know if you are a victim?

Falling victim to fatigue
It is important that both mechanics and hangar supervisors recognize the symptoms of fatigue. That way, they can address the matter before any serious accidents or injuries occur. There are many signs of fatigue; following are some to look for.

A fatigued worker may seem anxious, irritable, have a lack of confidence and energy, sleep poorly, and relationships with coworkers may be suffering. Being indecisive, a reduced quality in performance, increased errors, loss of interest, difficulty concentrating, loss of appetite, and digestive problems are also indicative signs. These are all symptoms that may be results of fatigue. Once fatigue is recognized it is important to address. There are immediate ways to address fatigue, but preventing fatigue is preferred.

Fatigue prevention
Prevention can be done both by the mechanic and maintenance supervision. The success of operations depends on workers’ ability to perform jobs both reliably and efficiently. Preventing fatigue ensures this.

A good way to start, on behalf of the maintenance supervisor, is to set specific work hour limitations. Shifts should be limited to a length no longer than 12 hours including overtime. In addition, there should be at least 11 hours between each shift for time to recover before the next. A weekly maximum of 48 to 60 work hours, including overtime, would also help to prevent fatigue.

Such limitations on hours may be difficult to live by, especially with the seemingly more noticeable shortage of maintenance professionals. Having mechanics cover the unmanned shifts or jobs may seem like a good idea until they end up missing work because of a cold they fell victim to due to their lowered immune system as a result of fatigue.

In addition to limiting work hours, developing a safety oriented culture will also help to encourage workers from working beyond what their abilities will allow. Hangar supervisors should be sure that mechanics are informed of the symptoms and causes for fatigue, along with the potential risks involved when working in a fatigued state.

Information can be transmitted through educational programs and training. The workplace can also be modified to keep workers alert by using bright lights, maintaining comfortable hangar temperatures, limiting high levels of noise, and providing a variety of tasks to be completed. It is also a good practice to continuously watch for symptoms of fatigue in others and warn them when something catches your attention.

The FAA currently holds restrictions on the work hours of pilots, but not control tower or maintenance employees. It is up to hangar supervisors and mechanics themselves to be sure that they are protecting themselves and the safety of others.