Image above: iStock/gremlin
Refuse to allow fatigue to creep into your operation.
Our industry works hard—really hard. Every hour of every day, we perform demanding and unforgiving technical tasks, often in some of the world’s harshest environments.
To outsiders, much of what we do seems so challenging—and so, frankly, awesome—that failure to remain alert seems downright impossible. But the truth, is many rotorcraft operators must constantly manage alarming levels of pilot and maintainer fatigue while planning and executing some of our industry’s dullest, dirtiest, or most dangerous work. Such routine exposure to operational hazards and severe consequences when things go wrong leaves little margin for error.
So how do the best rotorcraft operators consistently perform at such a high level without turning into metaphorical zombies on the job? Simply put: they own their risk.
Obsessive about Safety
High-performing operators are obsessive about identifying known hazards and anticipating unknown hazards. They acknowledge and mitigate the risks associated with those hazards down to the lowest acceptable level. Then, they accept or reject the residual risk that remains.
Sounds easy, right? It’s not! If they get it wrong, the consequences can be fatal, not just for their employees and passengers but for their business, as well. In some areas, however, risk management is straightforward, particularly regarding combatting fatigue.
Addressing Fatigue Effectively
One of the more predictable and controllable hazards operatohttps://youtu.be/Vu3QvTEX0jgrs can address is fatigue. How we choose to actively manage the health, wellness, and performance of our employees speaks volumes and can be a solid leading indicator of safety performance. Those who prefer to wait for new fatigue-related regulations or choose to comply with only the minimum standards may soon find themselves at a competitive disadvantage—or worse, encounter an unforgiving insurance, regulatory, or consumer market.
When it comes to fatigue, some operators are more “woke” than others. They take an active role in fatigue management because they understand it’s the right thing to do. Others are now on board after their own version of a wake-up call, having narrowly escaped catastrophic consequences during a fatigue-related event.
Rick Kenin, Boston MedFlight’s chief operating officer, is one such operator. Rick shares a few thoughts on a fatigue-related close call his company experienced.
“Following a fatigue-related event three years ago, we at BMF took a deep dive into how we manage fatigue in our operations. We came to understand that, similar to safety, it’s a shared responsibility between the crew and the company.
“Employees need to manage their off-shift time to ensure they show up for work rested and ready. But equally important, the company must establish a culture that understands fatigue and how to manage that risk. It’s about training crews in how to get good sleep, managing shift schedules to optimize rest, conducting start-of-shift personal fatigue risk assessments, and most importantly, encouraging crews to speak up when they’re tired.
“Accepting that people have different fatigue limits and making provisions for on-shift rest periods have been key to our fatigue risk management program’s success.”
In summary, fatigue is rarely cited as a causal factor in rotorcraft accident reports. But many of us know that it’s a very lethal, latent hazard. It finds a way to deceptively and insidiously set up shop in our daily ground and flight operations. It can be a precursor to forgetfulness, poor decision-making, reduced vigilance, and a host of other human-factors deficiencies that inhibit performance.
To combat these issues, consider adopting basic fatigue risk management principles and assessment tools and apply some good old-fashioned common sense. Do your homework.
- Do you regularly perform personal fatigue assessments? Do you have symptoms of acute or chronic fatigue? If you do, those around you probably do too.
- Do you understand the sleep science that contributes to regulations for certain commercial operations? If no, do some research. You might find it enlightening.
- What are your company’s duty, flight-time, and time-off (rest) requirements for pilots, nonpilots, and maintenance crews?
- Were these limits established before 2000? If yes, consider updating them.
- Do you perform flights in the middle of the night without triggering any reductions to your duty or flight-time limits or increase in time-off (rest) requirements? If yes, consider updating your requirements.
- Do some of your employees have excessively long commutes before or after a hitch? If yes, you might need to consider updating your policies to ensure crews are properly rested before beginning a hitch or driving home.
- Do your employees have the option to “call fatigue” without negative consequences? If not, you have a problem.
Take a walk around your hangar, ramp, shop spaces, and flight planning areas and observe your team. Pay attention to subtle behaviors that might reveal fatigue. You won’t catch everything, but you might pick up some clear indications of problems you can address. When we proactively manage our schedules with a focus on optimal human performance, we can and will prevent mistakes, incidents, and accidents. When we choose to disregard fatigue, we do so at our own peril, and may soon discover, or even join, the growing number of zombies in our midst!
Editor’s note: Rick Kenin will be joining Charlie Blathras, Boston MedFlight’s director of base operations, at the Air Medical Transport Conference to share more details about the fatigue event that spurred BFM to reevaluate its approach to fatigue risk management. Catch their presentation at the conference Sunday, Oct. 31, in Fort Worth, Texas.