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Let’s be clear about fatigue in aviation

By Kathy Fox      

The TSB does not comment on draft regulations, such as the current proposal for fatigue management in aviation. But we are generally supportive of Transport Canada when it takes steps intended to improve aviation safety. The Canadian public expects—and deserves—nothing less.

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Canada has one of the safest transportation networks in the world. It’s also one of the largest, with people and goods constantly moving by ship, rail, pipeline, and air.

At the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB), we are always looking to make that system even safer. To that end, we conduct independent investigations to find out not just what happened, but why. We then communicate what we learned to the Canadian public and to those best placed to take action, such as industry and regulators.

Last year, we added fatigue management for freight train crews to the TSB Watchlist, a list of issues that need to be addressed to make Canada’s transportation system even safer. We included it because sleep-related fatigue had been identified as a contributing factor in almost two dozen of our railway accident investigations, and we determined that the issue was systemic and had not received sufficient attention.

But that doesn’t mean this issue isn’t also a concern in other transportation modes. In fact, as our Watchlist points out, fatigue is pervasive throughout society: 60 per cent of Canadians report that they feel tired “most of the time,” and 30 per cent get fewer than six hours’ sleep per night.

These numbers are sobering, and they’re part of the reason the TSB considers fatigue in almost every investigation. First we look to see if it was present, and then whether it influenced an operator’s behaviour. If the answer to either of those questions is yes, we make a causal, contributory, or risk finding as appropriate to raise awareness and influence change.

Earlier this year, some segments of the aviation industry suggested—inaccurately—that the TSB did not consider fatigue to be a concern in aviation. These comments, originally made as part of industry consultations between aviation representatives and Transport Canada regarding draft regulations on pilot flight and duty times, have since been clarified, but in some quarters, the misperception persists.

To be clear, the TSB has made a number of findings about fatigue in aviation investigation reports over the years. In some cases, fatigue was causal, whereas in others it was found to be a possible risk for future accidents. When drawing up our list for 2016, the board did indeed consider whether fatigue should be a multi-modal Watchlist issue. However, we did not have sufficient data at the time to support the inclusion of fatigue as a systemic problem in any mode beyond rail transport.

The fact that a specific safety issue, such as fatigue in aviation, is not on the TSB Watchlist should not be interpreted to say that it is not an issue that needs to be addressed, or that nothing more needs to be done to reduce the risk. Because there’s always more that can be done, in all modes, not just aviation. The TSB does not comment on draft regulations, such as the current proposal for fatigue management in aviation. But we are generally supportive of Transport Canada when it takes steps intended to improve aviation safety.

The Canadian public expects—and deserves—nothing less.

Kathy Fox is chair of the Transportation Safety Board of Canada. The TSB is an independent agency that investigates marine, pipeline, railway and aviation transportation occurrences. Its sole aim is the advancement of transportation safety. It is not the function of the board to assign fault or determine civil or criminal liability.

The Hill Times 

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