The effects of fatigue can be insidious.
Without even realizing it, our abilities decline once we fail to get our recommended eight hours of sleep. Response times, decision-making, reflexes, mental focus and mood all begin to slide once a human begins building a sleep deficit. All the while, the propensity for risk-taking increases. In short, fatigue and sleep deprivation can put even the most highly trained, qualified and experienced people in an irrational state of mind. As one expert told News21: “It makes them stupid.”
As we examine fatigue in the transportation industry, we’ve found that the NTSB has issued repeated recommendations to regulatory agencies across all sectors, some dating as far back as the early 1970s. These recommendations have largely been ignored.
In aviation, there is rarely, if ever, a single cause for an accident or incident. Often the circumstances are more like the links in a chain. Fatigue’s place in this chain is most often evident when something has gone wrong. It’s the decision or reaction to that first link in the chain where the real trouble can begin for a fatigued flight crew.
It was an element in the Colgan Air crash near Buffalo, New York that killed 50 people in February 2009. And it has been a factor in hundreds of other deaths over the years.
Yet little has been done to protect pilots, traffic controllers and the flying public from the one bad decision, on the one bad day a pilot or controller might have during an otherwise long and unblemished career.
The recommendations are fairly simple: Change the limits of flight and duty times for flight crews so that it takes into account modern research into sleep, fatigue and circadian rhythms.
While we wait for regulatory agencies to change the rules, a pilot is climbing in the cockpit after a fitful night of undiagnosed sleep apnea; or a controller peers into the glass of his scope with a few hours of sleep and a hot cup of coffee.
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