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BIZ BUZZ: Congress, DOT take another flying leap at fatigue rules

Bed time? Instead of trying to baby-sit off duty truckers and pilots and air traffic controllers so they’ll be able to stick to the rules while on-duty, the DOT and Sec. Ray LaHood should start treating transportation professionals like grown-ups. (The Trucker graphic: ROB NELSON)

By KEVIN JONES
The Trucker Staff

5/5/2011

Everyone who’s had to fight off drowsiness knows a trick or two. But sometimes, you’ve just got to pull over, or put the ‘please knock’ sign on the office door — then just fold your arms, lean your head back and rest your eyes… Oops! Was that a 747 asking for landing instructions?

Sure, it has to be a little unsettling for a pilot when his air traffic controller is asleep. For those of us that live in the real world — especially those who’ve worked an overnight shift — we know human beings get sleepy.

Work rules in unusual conditions need to be made more flexible, not more complicated, right truckers? But this FAA control tower tizzy is serving as another prime example of the disconnect between policymakers and the people.

It’s only shocking because it was never big news before, all these guys falling asleep in the tower. Except, apparently, it’s been an open secret that got to be a political hot potato when a controller at a Washington airport got caught. And that will catch the attention of Congress and the bureaucrats who fly in and out of there.

Like the police chief in the movie Casablanca who pocketed his winnings before closing down the backroom casino, they were shocked, shocked to discover the DOT had so bungled a critical safety mission.

I’m afraid, as with truckers’ Hours of Service rules, the real bungling is only just beginning: All those guys who’ve been swapping tower chores to catch a few needed winks — without incident, for years — will get more regulations to make sure they do the job D.C.’s way. Personal responsibility, accountability? Forget about it. (In fairness, insiders say some of the problem stems from controllers’ angling for three-day weekends by stacking shifts, which does contribute to fatigue.)

Of course, since these guys are getting paid by the government, the DOT won’t have to pretend so much about listening to the concerns of private industry before imposing knee-jerk new rules. (Those of us of a certain age may remember what happened to the air traffic controller’s union back in the 1980s, when they pushed for better pay and conditions. If I recall, Americans were more upset by a baseball strike than President Reagan’s sending a bunch of rookies into the control tower. And am I off base in wondering why the DOT hires and pays these guys in the first place? The feds don't own the airports, do they? End of digression.)

First, the DOT will fiddle with some finer points. Make them take nine hours off between shifts. Sure, that’s more than eight, but is the difference meaningful? Is DOT Secretary Ray LaHood going to follow them home to make sure they use that hour more wisely?

The obvious solution, and one recommended by sleep experts, is to allow controllers to sleep during the 20-minute to 30-minute breaks they typically receive while working daytime shifts. Currently they can watch TV, play cards, have a snack — but not sleep.

But paying controllers who nap at work may be a tough sell in Congress, and consequently for the administration. One influential lawmaker said building sleep time into the on-the-job schedule is unacceptable.

“I think that is totally bogus,” Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told The Associated Press. “There are so many professions that have to work long hours. I was greeted this morning by a young surgeon that had been working all night in an ER.”

LaHood echoed the sentiment on national television a couple of days later, and the FFA chief likewise nixed any on-duty naps.

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Several other countries, including Germany and Japan, permit controllers to take sleeping breaks and they provide quiet rooms with cots for that purpose.

“Given the body of scientific evidence, that decision clearly demonstrates that politics remain more important than public safety,” said Bill Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation of Alexandria, Va. “People are concerned about a political backlash if they allow controllers to have rest periods in their work shifts the same way firefighters and trauma physicians do.”

Should truckers laugh or cry? Oops, no time — the 11-hour clock is running.

Studies show that 30 percent to 50 percent of night-shift workers report falling asleep at least once a week while on the job, according to Dr. Charles Czeisler, chief of sleep medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

“Government officials haven’t recognized that people routinely fall asleep at night when they’re doing shift work,” Czeisler told the AP.

So the notion that this has happened only a few times among the thousands of controllers “is preposterous,” he said in a telephone interview.

Czeisler said the potential danger isn’t limited to air traffic controllers, but can apply to truck and bus drivers, airline pilots and those in the maritime industry. Who else? Factory workers, police, firefighters, emergency workers, nurses and doctors, cooks, hotel employees, people in the media and others on night or changing shifts.

“We live in a very sleep-deprived society where many people are burning the candle at both ends,” Czeisler said.

He said that a half-century ago, just 2 percent of people slept six hours or less per night; today it’s 28 percent.

“We have 500 cable channels, we take work home with us on our Blackberrys and computers, both work and entertainment options are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week and there is much more and brighter light exposure in our homes in evenings, which affects hormones involved in sleep,” Czeisler said. “And we are still trying to get up with the chickens because our work hours are starting earlier and earlier.”

A NASA study suggested that pilots on long-distance flights would perform much better if given a chance to take a scheduled nap, as long the rest was planned and the both pilots didn’t sleep at the same time.

“But even though that’s been known for decades, it’s never been allowed because we prefer to pretend that these things are not happening,” instead of managing the problem, Czeisler said. “We have a bury-our-head-in-the-sand attitude.”

They’re buried somewhere … .

Show of hands, Congress: How many of you have never, ever, not once used that comfy, taxpayer-provided couch in your office to take a short, beneficial break from what must be an exhausting schedule? I thought so.

Let professionals be professionals.   

Associated Press sources contributed to this report.

Kevin Jones of The Trucker staff can be reached to comment on this article at kevinj@thetrucker.com.

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