Unsolved Issues: Part 2, Amber Berlin

To read Part 1, click here.

According to Wells and Rodriguez, the majority of fatalities in aviation are due to commercial flights on final approach-and-landing, which experience hull loss (2004). In approximately 70 percent of commercial jet hull loss accidents, the main cause has been attributed to flight crew error. People are involved in every aspect of the aviation industry, creating a widespread problem with few sound solutions. Air Safety Week, a top newsletter devoted to news and the analysis of aviation safety, reported, “Among the leading cause of fatal accidents for U.S. air carriers from 1989 to 1996 were loss of control and CFIT (Controlled Flight Into Terrain). Human error was identified as a major contributing cause in a large percentage of these accidents.”(2009).

Aircraft cost millions, and sometimes billions of dollars, so why do aviation professionals make these costly mistakes? In short, they’re exhausted. Long hours in a high-stress environment for an extended period of time leads to fatigue in aviation. We have seen the effects of fatigue in aviation, and with the extreme growth in this industry, the problem will only get worse if not addressed. Air traffic controllers and pilots alike are being asked to push the limits of their ability as management tries to make up for the manning shortage. As we make leaps in technology, many safety program elements are focused on this new technology in the cockpit, to help the pilot make fewer mistakes. However, it should be noted that the misuse of new technology has been the contributing factor in some aviation accidents, and it does not address the underlying deep-rooted problem of human error due to fatigue.

According to the publication, Plain Language About Shiftwork, approximately 15.5 million people work shifts (1997). Working shifts disrupts the body’s natural Circadian rhythm, the 24-hour cycle in the biochemical, physiological or behavioral processes of living beings. Irregular hours, split shifts, and frequent rotations between day and night are common to members of the aviation industry, in addition to extended work hours and high levels of physical and/or mental stress. These Circadian disruptions are often accompanied by sleep loss, with the lack of sleep creating an environment where the individual is too tired to concentrate effectively, resulting in an increased possibility of error or injury.
Fatigue in aviation is also a contributing factor to human error. Fatigue has many causes, including shift-work, lack of personnel or manning issues, circadian disruptions, loss of sleep, long work hours, long periods of physical or mental activity, and fatigue is also a symptom of stress. As stated by Deputy Secretary of Transportation Mortimer Downey, at a fatigue management conference, “Fatigue, due to reduced sleep and irregular hours, has been identified as major factors in a number of crashes and costly incidents.” (2000).

A Boeing jetliner on a airport runway at sunrise
Photo by: Bill
The Body’s Normal Response to Stress

Dr. Peter Panzarino provides an excellent description of the process of the body’s normal response to stress.

A healthy human response to stress involves three components:

  1. The brain handles (mediates) the immediate response. This response signals the adrenal medulla to release epinephrine and norepinephrine.
  2. The hypothalamus (a central area in the brain) and the pituitary gland initiate (trigger) the slower maintenance response by signaling the adrenal cortex to release cortisol and other hormones.
  3. Many neural (nerve) circuits are involved in the behavior response. This response increases arousal (alertness, heightened awareness), focuses attention, inhibits feeding and reproductive behavior, reduces pain perception, and redirects behavior. (2008).

Dr. Panzarino further explains how stress triggers the body’s fight or flight response:

  • The combined results of these three components of the stress response maintain the internal balance (homeostasis), increase energy production and utilization, alter electrolyte (chemical elements) and fluid balance in the body. The also gear up the organism for a quick reaction through the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The SNS operates by increasing the heart rate, increasing blood pressure, redirecting blood flow to the heart, muscles and brain and away from the gastrointestinal tract, and releasing fuel (glucose and fatty acids) to help fight or flee the danger. (2008).

The problem arises when there is no fighting or fleeing to help work those chemicals out of the body. In a natural environment, we would have to fight or flee, and the body would gear up and use those chemicals appropriately. However, in a stressful work environment, with no fighting or fleeing necessary, those chemicals remain in your system, effectively reducing your body’s ability to function properly. Under stress, the body produces cortisol to help meet the challenges of fight or flight. If your body is under high levels of stress consistently, the cortisol builds up in your system, causing damage.

How can we reduce cortisol levels, get a better night’s sleep and enhance our cognitive ability? Get a massage. Since the 1890’s, J.H. Kellog’s research on the effects of massage has opened the door for this luxury item to be realized as a necessary part of health maintenance (1897). However, despite the many documented effects of massage on the biological system, including improving sleep and increasing the ability to do both physical and mental work, it has not been applied to the aviation industry as a legitimate countermeasure to fatigue in aviation. A massage program has the potential to reduce the number of fatigue-related accidents by directly reducing stress and improving sleep. Also, because of the general reconstructive effects of massage on the body, overall healthcare costs for pilots will also be reduced. Understand the science behind massage and its application as a fatigue countermeasure, as well as other ways to fight fatigue will be explored in the upcoming Unsolved Issues: Part III – Working to Address The Problem of Fatigue in Pilots.

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References:

FAA Seeks to Improve Flight Crew Training. Air Safety Week. 23 Apr, 2009.

Kellogg, J.H. (1897). The Art of Massage.

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. (1997). Plain Language About Shiftwork. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Panzarino, Peter. (2008). Stress.

U.S. Department of Transportation. (2000). Partnering for Transportation Safety Human-Centered Systems Operator Fatigue Management Conference. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Wells, A.T. & Rodrigues, C.C. (2004) Commercial Aviation Safety. New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc

Feature Image: Kent Wien

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