By R. Bruce Striegler

The effects of too-little sleep or the impacts of prescription and non-prescription drugs on operating crews in public and private transportation systems has generated years of scientific study. Scores of government and industry committees and panels have studied the correlation between impaired or fatigued operators and crashes, so as to develop practices and regulations to prevent fatigue or substance induced accidents.

The most recent contribution to understanding the effects of lack of sleep comes from the U.S.-based National Sleep Foundation’s 2012 Sleep in America poll. Purported to be the first study that asks U.S. transportation professionals, including pilots, train operators, truck, bus, taxi and limo drivers about their sleep habits and work performance, it revealed that 26 per cent of train operators and 23 per cent of pilots admitted that being sleepy affected their job performance at least once a week. This compares to about 17 per cent of non-transportation workers. In addition, more than 50 per cent of pilots and train operators reported taking a nap on work days, compared to 25 per cent of non-transportation workers.

The study’s findings showed work schedules were major contributors to sleep problems, with 44 per cent of train operators and 37 per cent of pilots reporting that their current work schedule doesn’t allow for adequate sleep.

The highly varied schedules that transportation workers follow may also play a role in their sleep problems. Only 6 per cent of pilots and 47 per cent of train operators work the same work schedule each day, compared to 76 per cent of non-transportation workers. It then follows that the irregular time-off transportation workers take may also add to sleep problems.

Non-transportation workers report having an average of 14.2 hours off between shifts, compared to 12.9 hours for pilots; 12.5 for train operators; 12.1 for truck drivers; and 11.2 hours for bus, taxi, and limo drivers. If given one more hour off between work shifts, over one-half of pilots (56 per cent) and train operators (54 per cent) report that they would use that hour for sleep.

Fatigue and circadian rhythms

The impacts of fatigue in the workplace began to attract scientific study in the late 1970s when researchers discovered the structure of sleep, the role of circadian rhythms, the effects of sleep deprivation and the benefits of sleep management. German studies showed that when people lived in underground caves or bunkers without clocks or knowledge of time, the timing of their sleep drifted progressively because the human biological clock has an intrinsic rhythm that is longer than 24 hours.

Circadian rhythms are a complex set of biological instructions in living organisms, including plants, animals (including humans) and other microorganisms, which synchronize their internal clock to the earth’s 24-hour light/dark cycle. Fatigue is a state of feeling tired or sleepy that may result from prolonged mental or physical work, extended periods of anxiety or exposure to harsh environments. The result of fatigue is impaired performance and diminished alertness.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that the generally held assumptions creating hours-of-work regulations were recognized as flawed, with new research emerging and demonstrating how employees could be meeting their hours of service but were highly fatigued, and conversely, might be over their scheduled work hours and yet be fully alert and safe.

The most significant factors of fatigue were determined to be the circadian times of work and sleep opportunities and the consecutive number of hours awake. What researchers concluded was that there was an important difference between a sleep opportunity and the amount of actual sleep possible to obtain during that time.

As studies demonstrate the causes and effects of fatigue, international consensus has emerged, especially in businesses operating 24 hours, seven days a week. These businesses have determined that the best way to manage and reduce employee fatigue risk is through systematic processes called fatigue risk management systems (FRMS).

In just two years, between 2008 and 2010, the European Aviation Safety Agency made FRMS a requirement for airlines operating in Europe, the U.S. Federal Rail Safety Act mandated that U.S. railroads have fatigue management plans, and the American Petroleum Institute published FRMS standards for employees in the petrochemical industry.

Fatigue in the world of aviation

Accident reports from investigative bodies around the world illustrate examples of fatigue-related incidents such as the October 14, 2004, crash in Halifax. The MK Airlines 747 freighter crashed on take-off, killing all seven crew members. In its 2006 report on the accident, the Transportation Safety Board cited crew fatigue. The flight crew had been awake for at least 19 hours at the time of the crash and made an error in calculating take-off data during their lowest circadian window.

Fatigue is not limited to flight crews. A 2003 report prepared for Transport Canada, Fatigue Risk Assessment of Aircraft Maintenance Tasks, concluded that certain aspects of aircraft maintenance are more susceptible than others to the effects of mechanic fatigue. The report stated that the risk to aircraft maintenance operations was sufficient enough that Canadian operators should consider implementing FRMS and training for all maintenance personnel, schedulers, management and those procuring aircraft parts.

In 1990, a British Airways BAC 1-11 lost the left cockpit windscreen following take-off from Birmingham. Replaced just before the flight, the windscreen blew out when cabin pressure overcame the mechanical force of the bolts holding it in place. Eighty-four of the 90 securing bolts were smaller than specified. Sucked into the open windscreen, the captain was held in place by the crew until the co-pilot landed safely at Southampton. Britain’s Air Accidents Investigations Branch accident report from 1992 noted there were numerous contributing factors, including fatigue of the shift maintenance manager. The windscreen replacement was conducted in the very early morning, during the time when the body experiences its natural low, or circadian rhythm.

National and international standards

Mandated with promoting safe and orderly development of international civil aviation, the International Civil Aviation Organization, (ICAO) is a specialized agency of the United Nations, created in 1944. ICAO sets standards and regulations necessary for aviation safety, security, efficiency and environmental protection, and serves as an international forum for its 191 member states.

In November 2011, the organization incorporated FRMS into the globally accepted Annex 6, a policy document implemented in 2009, requiring that regulations for flight time, duty periods and rest periods for flight and cabin crews were to be based on scientific principles and knowledge.

In December 2011, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration set out new rules. Giving carriers two years to implement, the new rules aim to limit the maximum scheduled time a pilot can be on duty, including waiting time between flights, and administrative duties to between nine and 14 hours. The new rules also set the maximum amount of time a pilot can fly to eight or nine hours with a minimum of 10 hours rest between shifts. However, the rules will only apply to passenger service, not pilots on cargo flights. This omission disappoints the Air Line Pilots Association, International, which represents more than 53,000 pilots at 37 airlines in the United States and Canada.

Canada not there yet

Transport Canada says it takes flight crew fatigue management seriously, but the safety regulations for flight time, flight duty time and rest periods for flight crews have been in place and unchanged since 1996. The Canadian Aviation Regulations (CARs) currently require air operators to establish a program that monitors flight time, flight duty time and rest periods for flight crews. According to the regulations, no flight crew member is allowed to be on duty more than 14 consecutive hours in any 24 consecutive hour period.

Reacting to the news of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s new rules, Captain Paul Strachan, President of the Air Canada Pilots Association, which represents roughly 3,000 pilots for Air Canada’s mainline fleet, commented, “The rest of the world is moving to address pilot fatigue, while Canada remains mired in a regulatory review process that could last for years.”

Transport Canada has initiated a working group at the Canadian Aviation Regulation Advisory Council to review the existing rules and propose recommendations based on current science, with a final report expected by fall 2012. Additionally, the department is consulting with industry to develop criteria for a performance-based, scientifically defensible, and company-specific approach to the management of risk associated with fatigue on the flight deck, which would be in addition to prescriptive flight and duty time regulations.

The non-profit Canadian Business Aviation Association, whose membership of 600 companies and organizations includes operators and management companies, represents the business aviation industry as a stakeholder in the Transport Canada Fatigue Management Working Group. The association is concerned that the demands on business aviation flight crews compared to crews operating under current airline labour contracts are completely different. It acknowledges that crew and passenger safety is their primary concern, but point out how crucial it is that flight and duty times reflect the real needs of the sector, based on fact, and science.

Canadian rail safety

Canada ranks fifth in rail size on a list of 151 countries, with 72,912 kilometres of track and rail operations regulated by Transport Canada. The Canadian Railway Safety Act (RSA), implemented in 1989 and reviewed in 1994, was amended in 1999 to compel Canada’s railroad companies to implement safety management systems. The 1989 act reflected a policy of deregulation, separating economic interests and safety regulations creating structural changes in the rail industry.

The flexibility of the act led to significant restructuring; the two national railroads closed lines and transferred thousands of kilometres of track to short-line operators. Today, CN and CP operate about 74 per cent of Canada’s rail network, compared to 90 per cent in the 1990s, and there are now 40 short-rail lines operating on about 16,000 kilometres of track. VIA Rail dominates Canadian passenger service with about 95 per cent of intercity rail passengers and targeted tourist service.

Following the regulatory changes in the late 1990s, the number of railway accidents dropped (excluding crossing and trespassing accidents), but between 2002 and 2005 there was a sharp rise. Three high-profile accidents in British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec resulted in serious injuries, fatalities, major environmental damage and serious economic impacts. These accidents spurred the Canadian government to order a review of the Railway Safety Act in December 2006.

2007 rail safety review

The final report of the advisory panel, released to the public on March 7, 2008, contained 56 recommendations. The panel concluded that Canadian passenger service, and VIA Rail in particular, had a worthy safety culture, and that CP had taken great steps to improve its approach to safety. The opinion of the panel, however, found that CN’s strict adherence to a ‘rule-based’ approach, focusing largely on disciplinary actions when mistakes were made, had instilled a culture of “fear and discipline”, which is counter to any effective safety management system.

Comparing safety records of Canadian and U.S. operators, the review panel found that differences in data reporting made it difficult to draw conclusions, although since both CP and CN have significant American operations, they collect data for American regulators. Based on this information, the panel determined that the Canadian average number of accidents per million train miles from 1996 to 2006 was lower than comparable U.S.-based operators.

As stipulated in the Railway Safety Act, CN now has a general fatigue management plan for operating employees, with rules that define the requirements for hours of work and rest in order to ensure workers remain alert throughout their time of duty. Employees are required to have this document with them when on duty. Additionally, CN has developed a specific fatigue management plan, which provides additional rest requirements for employees with extenuating circumstances who are off-duty for extended periods.

CN’s workers in the United States in safety-sensitive positions, including locomotive engineers or dispatchers, operate under U.S. laws regarding work hours. The regulations set specific limits on the number of work hours per day and provide guidelines for periods of required rest. CN’s hourly agreements with its operating unions in the United States are unique to the rail industry. While traditional agreements are based on the number of miles worked, these hourly agreements, coupled with CN’s scheduled railroad and turnaround service, provide employees with the opportunity for sufficient rest and offer an improved quality of life.

Safety recommendations still not implemented

In March 2012, the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) released its report into the February 2010 VIA Rail crash that injured seven people in St-Charles-de-Bellechasse, Quebec. They noted there were troubling similarities between the Quebec accident and the February 26, 2012, fatal crash in Ontario.

TSB said the Quebec crash had a number of causes including poor visibility because of snow, outdated technology that left open the possibility of human error, and improper sharing of medical data that could reveal issues such as sleep disorders. The Board said all those factors contributed to the VIA Rail passenger train driving into a siding at excessive speed.

In its report, TSB says Canada’s rail system relies too heavily on human activity and is slow to upgrade to more automated systems. The Burlington, Ontario, crash this year has renewed calls for the installation of voice recorders in locomotive cabs and the implementation of Positive Train Control (PTC), a system that provides increased safety. TSB has been calling for voice recorders in cabs since 2003.

With PTC, information transmitted to the train identifies its location and shows where it may safely travel. Equipment aboard the train will then enforce the received data and prevent unsafe movement. PTC creates train separation or collision avoidance, enforces line speed as well as temporary speed restrictions and improves rail worker wayside safety. PTC was made mandatory by the U.S. Congress in 2008, and many rail companies throughout the world have similar systems in place.

TSB noted that VIA has already implemented changes to its policies. Among the changes, medical records for locomotive engineers hired from CN and other companies are transferred to VIA. The company also developed critical incident workshops for all VIA locomotive engineers, integrating them into the recertification program for all locomotive engineers. In response to the report, VIA also noted that the voice recorder project is progressing rapidly and that it will continue to participate in all discussions pertaining to added security precautions related to Canadian railway signals.

American ‘war on drugs’ in the workplace

The headline on the March 2012 story in The Wall Street Journal was compelling: “Amphetamine Positives Jump Nearly 26% After New Rule, Continuing Upward Trend”. The story was that of an American drug-testing company touting the excellence of its testing systems when screening ‘safety workers’, including those who drive or fly and maintain commercial vehicles and aircraft.

Drug testing in the workplace has been a fact of life in the United States since the 1980s, when the U.S. government mandated compulsory drug testing requirements in public and private organizations whether domestic or foreign. Federally mandated regulations require workplace alcohol and drug policies and testing programs in government agencies and private sector contractors to those agencies, including the military, transportation, postal, customs and nuclear energy sectors.

In 1981, a U.S. Navy reconnaissance jet crashed while attempting a nighttime landing aboard the USS Nimitz nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Fourteen crew were killed, another 48 injured and two other fully fuelled jets were destroyed. Equipment damages alone were estimated at $150 million. Of the 14 sailors killed, the post-accident report revealed that six flight deck crew had THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, in their systems and deemed it a contributing factor to the crash. The accident was one of the catalysts for the military’s “zero tolerance” policy for drug use instituted by President Ronald Reagan, and thus created the American concept of a “drug-free workplace.”

The U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse points to the growing danger of non-medical use or abuse of prescription drugs, estimating that more than 52 million Americans have used prescription drugs for non-medical reasons at least once in their lives. The majority of employers across the United States are not required to drug test and many state and local governments have statutes that limit or prohibit workplace testing, unless required by state or Federal regulations for certain jobs. Also, drug testing is not required under the Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988. On the other hand, most private employers have the right to test for a wide variety of substances.

Canadian human rights policies hinder mandatory testing

In Canada, no federal legislation or regulations exist requiring or prohibiting mandatory drug testing, although it’s estimated that 10 per cent of Canadian worksites do have drug prevention and testing programs in place. It appears that the most common reason Canadian companies adopt drug testing is to reduce industrial accidents, with some companies arguing that just using drugs, whether on or off the job, increases the likelihood that employees will have a job accident.

A number of high-profile challenges have been made in Canada in response to mandatory drug testing. Although the legal details of each case are complex, Canadian high courts, including the Supreme Court, have helped clarify an employer’s obligations when it comes to setting standards some might consider discriminatory. The decisions in each case defined the issue in terms of human rights.

The Canadian Human Rights Commission’s policy regarding alcohol and drug testing is quite clear: “Drug testing is generally not acceptable, because it does not assess the effect of drug use on performance. Available drug tests do not measure impairment, how much was used or when it was used. They can only accurately determine past drug exposure.

Therefore a drug test is not a reliable means of determining whether a person is, or is not, capable of performing the essential requirements or duties of their position. That said, alcohol testing may be acceptable in some cases, because a properly administered breathalyser is a minimally intrusive and accurate measure of both consumption of alcohol and actual impairment … Requiring an employee or applicant of employment to undergo a drug test as a condition of employment will, in most cases, be considered a discriminatory practice on the ground of disability.”

Cross-border differences

With no national policies regarding workplace drug testing, employers across Canada are implementing policies in a patchwork manner, often as a result of being an American subsidiary. U.S. trucking companies must have workplace policies that require testing in several situations, including pre-employment, post-employment, post-accident, reasonable suspicion, return-to-work, follow-up and random testing. A Canadian company operating in the U.S. is required to comply with these regulations. In some cases, American parent companies seek to impose their policies and practices on all their employees, even those employed by Canadian subsidiaries.

In July 2011, the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, in partnership with the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, and Public Safety Canada, hosted an international symposium in Montreal. More than 100 delegates from 14 countries gathered to share information, discuss the available evidence, and promote international cooperation in tackling the full spectrum of issues surrounding the use of drugs by drivers.

Focusing on fatigue a critical issue in transportation

During the winter of 2008-2009 in Quebec, in three separate incidents, pedestrians were struck and killed by snow removal equipment. In two cases, fatigue most likely contributed to the deaths: both snowplow drivers were in excess of the government-sanctioned hour limit for operating heavy machinery, with one already having a suspended driver’s licence for a previous breach of that same limit.

As evidence mounts demonstrating that fatigue is responsible for many highway crashes, accidents and deaths, governments around the world are now focusing resources on studies and measures to limit workers hours in the public transportation sphere. Transport Canada is sponsoring a collaborative international effort through the Transportation Development Centre, to identify fatigue management requirements and develop a comprehensive approach to fatigue management for drivers, dispatchers and company management.

The program includes participation from the U.S. Department of Transportation, Alberta Infrastructure and Transportation, the Alberta Workers’ Compensation Board, the Commission de la santé et de la sécurité du travail du Québec, and the Société de l’assurance automobile du Québec. Operational and other support for the program is provided by the motor carrier industry through the participation of the Alberta Motor Transport Association, the American Transportation Research Institute, the Association du camionnage du Québec, the Canadian Trucking Alliance, and Canadian and U.S. volunteer motor carriers taking part in the operational tests.