Sleep Expert Stresses Need for Fatigue Management

 - November 13, 2019, 12:26 PM

Organizations can implement targeted fatigue-risk-management programs and still operate within their economic goals, says a leading fatigue expert. But if they don’t pay attention to fatigue risks, the results could have safety consequences, added Daniel Mollicone, CEO of sleep research specialist Pulsar Informatics, during Bombardier’s annual Safety Standdown on Wednesday.

Pulsar analyzes helicopter accidents and reports to the FAA on the potential of fatigue involvement, and found that as many as one in five has a fatigue factor, Mollicone said. He pointed to an accident involving a fatigued American Airlines pilot who failed to deploy spoilers and lost directional control on the runway. “These are mistakes that don’t need to happen.”

A company can provide adequate rest time, but then it is up to pilots to ensure they get adequate rest. This is part of their professionalism, Mollicone said.

Most people are not aware of how much sleep they actually need. Nearly 30 percent believe that they only need between six and seven hours, when science shows that only 5 percent of the population is actually in that category. That means 25 percent of people are not in the category they believe. “They are deluding themselves,” he said.

Sleep deprivation adds up and can result in serious degradation of performance. Tests have shown that the number of lapses—times when a brain stops processing and a person is unaware that it is happening—increases as the sleep “debt” increases. Studies revealed that a person who remains in the six-hour-a-night group for a week has reached the cognitive level of a person who has lost an entire night’s sleep. But the “six-hour group systematically underestimates how badly they are doing,” Mollicone said.

Time of day matters since it can upset the natural function of a body, he added. “When we fly at night, there are risks there, because we are actually working against what our body is trying to do at that moment,” he said. This doesn’t mean that they can’t fly at night, but they need to ensure that they use technology and follow procedures carefully.

Further, managers must be aware of long days. Cognitive impairment starts to set in after 17 hours. At 22 hours of wakefulness, the mind is the equivalent of those with a blood alcohol content of .08. “It is startling to me how quickly we can get to incapacitation,” he said. “Things get precipitously bad when we push ourselves past our limits.” Studies on the trucking industry showed that fatigued drivers are 500 percent more likely to text.

Studies also have shown that despite the belief that people just get used to lack of sleep, they actually don’t. A number of other factors exacerbate fatigue, including the use of medications, alcohol, or medical issues. A review Pulsar made of fatigue issues in one company revealed 3 percent of workers with significant fatigue issues. Some of those workers discovered that they had undiagnosed serious medical conditions that needed to be treated.

The goal is to identify those scenarios in flight operations where the risk of incapacitation becomes real and to mitigate that, he said. That doesn’t mean pilots won’t ever be fatigued. But what they don’t want is for pilots to be pushed to the point of incapacitation.

By carefully monitoring risk areas, an organization can manage fatigue, Mollicone said, adding organizations do not have to choose between being successful and managing fatigue risk.

This includes understanding biology and correlating it to risk. Results of studies show that a relatively small number of missions actually involve risks of incapacitation. But knowing the ones that do, an organization can focus time and resources on mitigation factors and planning of missions, he said.