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Fatigue Emerging as a Safety Issue

Employment: Shifts other than daytime are a way of life for many workers, including airline pilots, train engineers.


Jetliner pilot Perry Payne remembers the Coke and coffee he'd gulp when flying the red-eye from Dallas to the West Coast and back again in one night.

He'd begin his shift at 10 p.m., and make it back around 6 a.m., then sleep during the day before heading back to the airport. He'd fly the route for three consecutive days before starting his four-day weekend, when he'd slip back into a day routine.

"That first night is kind of tough, trying to stay up all night," he recalled. "The second night is much easier. The third night, you're fine."

But that first night, "You would drink Coke or coffee for the caffeine to make you a little bit more alert. You are aware of it [the fatigue] and you know that you have to be paying attention."

Payne--and his passengers--are among the lucky ones. He works for American Airlines and praises their regulations that strictly limit the schedules pilots work.

Shifts are a way of life for millions of Americans. Of the 80.5 million workers in 1991, the only year such a survey was conducted, 18% worked something other than a regular daytime schedule, said Barbara Wootton, an economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That included 5.1% of workers on an evening shift, 3.7% on a night shift, 3.4% on a rotating shift, 3.7% on an inconsistent schedule, 0.6% on a split shift and 1.4% on a shift classified as "other," she said.

Overnight, disjointed and overly long shifts can do more than disrupt workers' lives. They can be dangerous or deadly.

Fatigue may be a factor in as many as 42,000 fatal transportation accidents each year, according to the Department of Transportation.

Fatigue was a possible factor in the Feb. 9 crash of a New Jersey commuter train. Engineer John J. DeCurtis apparently ran a red light just before a collision that killed him and two others. He had been on duty for 14 1/2 hours after an overnight shift.

The New Jersey Transit commuter railroad decided afterward to eliminate the overnight split shift DeCurtis had worked. The shift exceeded 12 hours with a break of at least four hours in the middle. Engineers typically spend those four hours sleeping, or trying to sleep, in a train car or rail yard.

"It's not an acknowledgment that split shifts are dangerous," New Jersey Transit spokesman Jeff Maclin said.

As a defense, New Jersey Transit and other employers have cited a federal law that permits such hours, along with the requisite breaks. But that law was written nearly 90 years ago.

The Federal Railroad Administration is helping conduct two research projects examining the issue of fatigue. Results of one are expected in March. The regulatory agency is hosting a conference on fatigue in April.

David Bolger, an agency spokesman, said fatigue tends to be more of a problem with freight train operators, whose runs can be delayed while goods are loaded or unloaded.

Sometimes, an engineer might get calls throughout the day repeatedly postponing a departure time. That means the engineer is awake during what could have been a sleep interval.

"Are they rested? They're not operating a train, but they're up all day expecting to go to work," Bolger said.

Payne said a similar problem exists for reserve pilots called to work when a scheduled pilot is sick.

"What can happen is one of these night trips pop up. You've been up all day, out working in the yard or washing the car, and all of a sudden, you're asked to stay up all night," he said.

Fatigue among workers who perform crucial decision-making jobs is enough of a concern that the National Transportation Safety Board held a symposium about it last November.

"The danger from fatigue is not just that someone will nod off to sleep at the controls of a plane, ship, train or motor vehicle, although I'm sure all of those have happened," Transportation Secretary Federico Pena told the participants. "The insidious danger is that the operator may become dulled enough to miss--or misinterpret--a critical danger signal, or be slow in responding to it."

Fatigue was cited as a factor in the 1989 Exxon Valdez grounding, which spilled nearly 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound, and in the 1994 crash of a DC-8 at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba, which seriously injured the three crew members.

At the time of the Cuba accident, the NTSB said, the pilot had been awake for 23.5 hours, the first officer for 19 hours and the navigator for 21 hours.

Fatigue also was identified as a contributing factor in 53 of 3,169 fatal accidents involving heavy trucks in 1993, and may be a contributor in up to 40% of all heavy truck accidents, the NTSB said.

Pena noted that fatigue is not just a matter of rest: "Lots of factors cause fatigue, such as pressures from the job, and the operating environment, and whether it's dark or light."

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