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Fatigue in the Workplace

This segment of our website will contain brief critiques of fatigue regulations and summaries of findings from post-incident investigations, research studies and news stories about fatigue risk effects in the workplace. Here are a few findings that will interest you: 

  • New Fatigue Regulations for Commercial Airline Flightcrew Members Set by FAA Unit of DOT
    In late December 2011, the Federal Aviation Administration enacted new regulations governing flight, duty and rest hours for certificate holders and their flightcrew members operating under 14CFR Part 121.  These new rules, in the words of the FAA, "recognize the universality of factors that lead to fatigue in most individuals and regulates these factors to ensure that flightcrew members in passenger operations do not accumulate dangerous amounts of fatigue....The rule provides different requirements based on the time of day, whether an individual is acclimated to a new time zone, and the likelihood to be able to sleep under different circumstances."  This approach to fatigue regulation is more consistent with the models practiced in Britain and Australia, two countries that have been in the forefront of fatigue science research.  While this new fatigue regulation definitely is a step forward for passenger safety, the safety of the commercial airline industry as a whole is compromised by the FAA's decision to exempt all-cargo carriers like FEDEx and UPS from these new duty hours' and unrestricted sleep requirements.  Given that these planes are more likely to fly at night and operate across multiple time zones than are passenger airlines, this exclusion makes no sense.  Additionally, since cargo airlines operate in the same airspace at the same airports and on the same runways and taxiways as passenger airlines, having any pilots in a state of fatigue places high risk on the air traffic system and passengers in particular.  After all, it was a cargo plane that had a near-collision with Air Force One just a few years ago.
    Rule Critique by Susan L. Koen, Ph.D., 2012
  • New Fatigue Rules for Commercial Drivers Set by FMCSA Unit of DOT
    The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration also enacted new rules in late 2011 governing hours of service for commercial motor vehicle drivers.  These "Fatigue Rules" will go into effect on July 1, 2013.  According to these new rules, drivers who carry property may drive a maximum of 11 hours after 10 consecutive hours off duty, and may not drive at all after having been on duty for 14 consecutive hours.  Oddly, though, the new rules are less restrictive for commercial drivers carrying passengers.  Passenger-carrying drivers may drive a maximum of 10 hours after only eight consecutive hours off duty, and may not drive at all after having been on duty for 15 consecutive hours.  In preventing fatigue risks, the consecutive work period is less important than the consecutive rest period.  Given that 7 hours of unrestricted, restful sleep per day is the minimum recommended for prevention of both acute and cumulative fatigue, the 8-hour off-duty window for passenger-carrying drivers is insufficient for managing fatigue risks.
    Rule Critique by Susan L. Koen, Ph.D., 2012
  • Fatigue is Likely Root Cause of Commuter Air Crash in Lexington, KY
    The official NTSB report identified flight crew error as the cause of this crash that killed 49 out of 50 passengers during a 6:00 a.m. take-off on the wrong runway at Bluegrass Airport. However, Washington State University sleep researchers have determined that the lone Air Traffic Controller's work schedule and sleep history were more likely to be the deep-level root causes of this fatal accident. The Controller had only slept four hours prior to the start of his early-morning shift. At 6:00 a.m. the day of the crash, this Controller cleared the Comair commuter flight to take off on the wrong runway.
    Accident Analysis and Prevention, 2011
  • Air, Land & Sea – NTSB Reports Show Fatigue Dominates
    Investigative reporting by News 21, a national university student reporting project, found that fatigue is a dominant causal factor in all types of transportation accidents. Additionally, this investigative report from the Washington Post found that fewer than half of the National Transportation Safety Board’s recommendations to curb fatigue have been enacted.
    Transportation safety: Efforts to curb fatigue-related accidents often languish, Washington Post, September, 2010
  • Fatigued Surgeons Create Increased Risk of Complications

    A study published in fall 2010 showed patients of sleep-deprived surgeons faced an 83% increased risk of complications, citing massive hemorrhage and organ injury as the most common examples. And general surgeons who performed elective surgery during the day after working the previous night had a 171% higher risk of serious complications.
    Journal of American Medical Association, 2010
  • High Prevalence of Sleep Deprivation Found Among Software Engineers
    Over half of software engineers in a large Indian company were found to have sleep deprivation of a mild (35%) to severe (21%) level, as compared to 23% of the general population. The authors concluded, "Lifestyle management programs that include sleep hygiene and care should be incorporated as a policy matter in the IT industry."
    Applied Research in Quality of Life, 2010