FAA Expresses Concern over Technician Fatigue

 - May 11, 2011, 11:30 AM

The most recent FAA FAASTeam Maintenance Safety Tip conveys the FAA’s growing concern about fatigue, in this case technician fatigue. The issue has long been associated with pilots but rarely with technicians.

FAR Part 121.377–Maintenance and preventive maintenance personnel duty time limitations–states: “Within the United States each certificate holder (or person performing maintenance or preventive maintenance functions for it) shall relieve each person performing maintenance or preventive maintenance from duty for a period of at least 24 consecutive hours during any seven consecutive days or the equivalent thereof within any one calendar month.”

The Maintenance Safety Tip points out, “Although aviation maintenance personnel typically work long hours, often nights and weekends, they are rarely included in aviation industry programs to fight fatigue (physical and mental). Duty time limits and other efforts to address fatigue typically are intended for flight crews–not maintenance personnel. Even the reference (121.377) only applies to Part 121 functions.

“Since there are little or no regulatory requirements to limit work hours, especially in general aviation, the onus is on each one of us as maintenance professionals to prevent fatigue from occurring, thereby preventing maintenance errors from occurring,” it says. To that end the FAA is offering an online course titled, “Fatigue Countermeasure Training,” which addresses fatigue issues for mechanics and other maintenance technicians.

Richard Komarniski, president of Grey Owl Aviation Consultants, told AIN, “We have witnessed the effects of fatigue by our peers in the hangar and cockpit and it basically boils down to lack of professionalism. As professionals in our industry we all must be aware of the symptoms of fatigue and take appropriate countermeasures.

“Would you bet on a race horse that was run hard, deprived of necessary rest, drank bad water, was fed old and moldy hay and did not have a good daily exercise routine? While we would go to great lengths to make sure animals or pets that depend on us are well rested, eat a proper diet and receive regular exercise, what do we do for ourselves?”

Komarniski, a licensed aircraft maintenance technician since 1974, offers human factors, fatigue risk management system and safety management systems training to the aviation industry.

He said fatigue is the body’s normal reaction to a physical or mental stress of prolonged duration. “The onset of fatigue is insidious and the symptoms may not be recognized until the person has reached a high degree of fatigue. It is one of the main contributors to maintenance errors and must be addressed if we are to improve safety and reduce maintenance errors,” he said.

According to Komarniski, major stresses that can provoke fatigue include insomnia, sleep apnea, family problems, financial difficulties, bad interpersonal relations, company conflicts and pressure from an employer.

“You need to be aware of these stress factors and keep them in perspective. Fatigue can affect our coordination and judgment in many ways that degrade the quality of our work. Classic case studies of maintenance errors due to fatigue include the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island nuclear plant disasters, the Boeing 737 forward fuselage section separation attributed to undetected corrosion, and the BAC 111 windshield which blew out because of the wrong size of fasteners,” he said

“The maintenance errors that contributed to these incidents all took place in the early morning, when individual fatigue level is highest due to our naturally occurring daily body cycle, also known as circadian rhythms.”

Common symptoms of fatigue: reduced attention, including the reduction of visual scanning and performance; becoming less aware of performance; reverting to “old” habits; increased irritability; and development of a “don’t care” attitude.