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It is a well proven fact that tired people do not perform as well as well-rested people. In extreme cases, the fatigued person may be in a micro sleep, or in fact, full sleep, which will often lead to unduly slow responses and hence performance changes. Even without Microsleeps, studies have shown that fatigue often leads to slower information processing-speed and therefore a loss of cognitive creativity (TH, 2002). As a result, most fatigued people are likely to use old information processing strategies, even though their application is no longer optimal, or even practical.
There are four core physiological factors known to cause fatigue and hence play a major role in the occurrence of fatigue-related accidents. A major factor is the acute loss and cumulative debt of sleep. Continuous hours of wakefulness, circadian rhythms, and sleep disorders are other factors. For optimal waking performance and alertness, the average adult will need an approximately 8 hours of sleep. Circadian rhythms control the timing of physiological activities such as immune function and digestion, which in turn affect the alertness, performance and mood of the individual. Sometimes, these factors can be related, and contribute to, or cause the accident.
In the majority real-world situations, the worst consequences of fatigue result, not from a slowing in response, but from a loss of situational awareness. This is often the result of a major cognitive or attention failure which manifests itself in the subject failure to appropriately respond to the situation at hand. In hindsight, it is clear that the subjects often make errors or miss an important feature of the situation (Y, 2006). Sometimes, this loss of situational awareness will result in a massive catastrophe, or at other times, with additional levels of safety control, the situation could be saved.
In recent times, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have expressed concern about the increasing rates of accidents and near misses which can be attributd to the Air Traffic Controllers' (ATC) personnel working while fatigued. Majority of these problems concern overtime and shift work, both of which have a negative impact on the amount of sleep obtained. Short returns i.e. a break of only 9hours between the end of one shift and the beginning of another can be cited as the chief problem with regard to backward rotating shifts. Such issues are often worsened by an aging workforce or a shortage of qualified personnel to fill positions.
The fatal air crash which occurred in Lexington, Kentucky on 27th August 2006 is a good example of an accident resulting from fatigue of the involved subjects. Comair Flight 191 was a domestic passenger flight that crashed while attempting to take off from Blue Grass Airport, Kentucky. The airplane had been cleared for takeoff by ATC on runway 22, which is about 7000 feet long and is well equipped with high-intensity runway lights. However, the airport crew mistakenly taxied it onto runway 26, which is only 3500 feet long and unlighted. As a result, the airplane ran of the end of runway 26, clipped the airport perimeter fence and trees, and crashed, killing 49 people out of the 47 passengers and 3 crew members. The remaining one casualty suffered serious injuries, including a collapsed lung and multiple broken bones (H & U, 2006).
After investigations, the NTSB learned that the day before the accident, the air traffic controller who had cleared the airplane for takeoff had worked a shift from 0630 to 1430. He had then returned 9 hours later to work the shift from 2330 until the next morning, the period in which the accident occurred. The controller admitted that in the 24 hours before the accident, his only sleep had been a 2-hour nap the previous afternoon between the 2 shifts. It is clear that the air traffic controller was fatigued, which led to his reduced alertness, hence the accident.
The Federal Aviation Administration's key role is to formulate and enforce laws concerning the conduct of pilots and airlines. It should thereffore devise simple and practical laws aimed at reducing or eliminating fatigue in pilots and the airline crew members. The current laws should be rewritten to ensure simplicity and straightforwardness, and they should not vary by type of operation. In 1995, the FAA proposed a law to update the flight and duty regulations for airline pilots, but up to date, no action has been taken. In 2000, the FAA carried out its own study which revealed that 25% of airline maintenance personnel were exhausted or fatigued at work, but no action has been taken on that front either.
To enhance flight safety with respect to fatigue, the FAA should formulate new rules aimed at reducing flight and duty time requirements for both airline crew and pilots. Rather than the usual 8 hours permitted to pilots before reporting for duty, the new laws should extend these hours to ensure they receive adequate rest. They should also be allowed to get more consecutive time off during the week and they should be limited to minimum work hours between rest periods (Duke, 2007). If they feel too fatigued to fly, pilots should be allowed to decline assignments without penalty (Charlotte, 2010). Additionally, airlines should be encouraged to put in place risk management systems for individuals.
Most importantly, individuals should be educated and encouraged to take preemptive measures in order to reduce fatigue. Getting enough sleep and exercising regularly can help in this endeavor. Staying hydrated by drinking plenty of water will not only ensure good health, but will also increase alertness and therefore safety.
From the above, it is clear that fatigue is often the cause of errors by pilots and other airline members, providing a vital link in the series of events leading to an accident. It is often the result of poor decision making abilities and reduced performance in pilots and other airline members. A reduction in fatigue for this group would therefore increase their decision-making abilities and performance, thereby significantly reducing the number of fatigue-related accidents.