What are the effects of fatigue due to extreme weather on aviation ground crew maintainers?

Subject: Mental Health
Pages: 11
Word count: 2751
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Statement of the Issue

Fatigue is one of the common issues experienced by any worker in most occupations.  It is an issue which can have significant effects on their work output, the quality of their work, and their safety in the conduct of their work (Hockey, 2013).  In the aviation industry where workers are often faced with stressful work conditions, fatigue can be considered a major issue.  This literature review seeks to establish what the effects of fatigue are due to extreme weather conditions on aviation ground crew maintainers.

Significance of the Issue

Extreme weather conditions, mostly related to extreme cold, extreme heat, and stormy weather can present dangerous and difficult work conditions for ground crew maintainers (Coffel & Horton, 2015).  These maintainers can hardly stop work during these extreme weather conditions because work in the runways and the aviation system cannot be stopped or stalled.  This work requires continuous maintenance and management in order to ensure its availability at all times, efficient functioning, and to prevent any damage to any aspect of the aviation system (Coffel & Horton, 2015).  Extreme weather fatigue on ground crew maintainers can sometimes cause them to commit errors in their work.  Such errors may lead to accidents.  It can also lead to exhaustion, stress, nervous breakdowns on the part of the ground crew (Coffel & Horton, 2015).  In turn, errors may arise from such poor physical and mental conditions.  Studies on these effects shall further be evaluated below.

Review of Relevant Research

In the past few decades, the major and disastrous effects of climate change have and are being felt in different parts of the world.  The world now has taken serious notice of this problem and is taking some necessary steps towards addressing it and reducing its effects.  The Environmental Protection Agency (2016) has released its report on how climate change can impact on human health.  The EPA (2016) discusses that climate change can impact on food, water, and air quality as well as quantity.  The extent of such risks would be very much based on how well the public health systems can actually address and manage such changing issues.  Aspects like individual behavior, age, and economic status all affect each other in how much climate change can affect an individual’s health (EPA, 2016).  In developing countries which are very much vulnerable to health risks, climate change has the most significant impact on their health.  Children, pregnant women, older adults, as well as those belonging to the lower income bracket also carry a greater risk related to climate change (EPA, 2016).  The EPA (2016) also discusses how warmer temperatures can lead to heat waves which can sometimes last longer.  Heat waves can cause death from heat strokes and dehydration, including cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.  Those working outdoors are especially vulnerable to higher temperatures (EPA, 2016).  Moreover, exposure to fine particulates which can increase during warmer days can lead to negative health effects including chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases as well as lung cancer.  These outdoor workers can also be vulnerable to vector-borne diseases which are known to increase during warmer days (EPA, 2016).

On the other end of the weather continuum, cold and winter conditions can also present major challenges to work and to the people’s health.  In the field of aviation for instance, winter and cold conditions can cause ice accretions on the fuselage, mostly on the wings of aircrafts (Torres, Nadeau, & Morency, 2016).  When not cleared, this can affect the aerodynamics of the plane.  It can stall and plane and lead to stability issues especially during its takeoff and even during the flight itself (Torres, Nadeau, & Morency, 2016).  Ice can also form on the surfaces of planes especially where snow or freezing rain descends.  In order to reduce the impact of ice on planes, de-icing procedures are carried out by aviation ground crews.  The de-icing crew has to work almost round the clock in order to ensure that ice would not accumulate on the planes and to ensure that these planes can be available for use whenever better weather conditions for flight are available (Torres, Nadeau, & Morency, 2016).  De-icing is an important part of the work of ground crew members who often undertake their work under cold and icy conditions.  Glycol products are often used in order to promote de-icing, and they usually carry out de-icing within a limited period of time (Torres, Nadeau, & Morency, 2016).  Their work presents major occupation risks as they work often at dangerous heights, suffering significant discomfort from the cold and the winds, being at risk of slips and falls, and being exposed to dangerous glycols.  De-icing is often undertaken from five in the morning to 11 at night (Torres, Nadeau, & Morency, 2016).  This represents more than two normal shifts.  Working under cold and windy conditions can lead to exhaustion and fatigue (Jacobsen, 2012).  In some cases, without safety precautions or safety gear on, these cold conditions can lead to hypothermia, frostbites, impaired mental acuity and physical dexterity (Jacobsen, 2012).  Accidents and human errors may arise from these compromised physical conditions.

In the study by Torres, Nadeau, and Morency (2016), the authors were able to establish that factors like vehicle type as well as the age of the technician can influence the performance of aircraft de-icing ground crews.  Fatigue levels for young technicians as well as open-basket trucks can be higher.  Long work hours and consecutive work days can negatively impact on the health of these technicians, often causing human error and human failings (Torres, Nadeau, & Morency, 2016).  The study also cites instances when environmental elements like noise, increased physical loads, and increased work pace can lead to human errors and failings in the workplace (Torres, Nadeau, & Morency, 2016).  The authors also cite one of the worst de-icing accidents on record which was at the Montreal/Mirabel International Airport in 1995 where a 747 Royal Air Maroc started “to move forward before de-icing operation was completed, striking both of the service vehicles” (Torres, Nadeau, & Morency, 2016).  Minor injuries were incurred by the drivers, but the open basket trucks were killed.  Investigations of the incident revealed that the communication process between the de-icing crew and the other aviation maintenance crew was confused and the crew was also not efficiently trained to efficiently manage the de-icing procedure (Torres, Nadeau, & Morency, 2016).  Following the incident, there were major changes implemented on the de-icing procedures.  Still, the authors note that despite these changes implemented, there are still accidents which are often seen during de-icing activities and they note that fatigue is one of the major factors often causing such accidents (Torres, Nadeau, & Morency, 2016).

In the study by Williamson and colleagues (2011), the authors set out to assess the link between three primary causes of fatigue, namely, sleep homeostasis factors, circadian influences, and nature of task effects, with safety outcomes.  The review indicated that there is clear evidence of sleep homeostatic effects which can impair performance and cause accidents.  The authors recognize that fatigue seems to contribute to the occurrence of accidents and injuries, sometimes death in different settings (Williamson, et al., 2011).  They also understand that exhausted and fatigue workers are more likely to create unsafe work spaces.  Highly at risk work places for these fatigued workers include the transportation sector from the roads to aviation, rails, and the maritime sectors (Williamson, et al., 2011).  The occupational sector (medical personnel, law enforcement) is also considered an at-risk area for fatigued workers, especially for those working irregular hours.   Fatigue can decrease response time and this can cause accidents (Williamson, et al., 2011).  It can also compromise the worker’s attention and focus.  The authors recognize that a good number of road and transportation accidents have been associated with fatigue.  The impact of fatigue on these road accidents depends much on the different related factors within and outside the control of transport workers (Williamson, et al., 2011).  Regardless of such factors however, fatigue seems to be a consistent factor impacting on the occurrence of accidents and other related incidents (Williamson, et al., 2011).

Summary of Major Findings and Conclusion

In summarizing the findings presented above, it is important to note that extreme weather conditions, represented by too warm or too cold temperatures can have negative impacts on the general health of individuals.  Climate change which is often seen in the incidence of extreme weather conditions can be seen to create less than ideal work environments for individuals.  Heat waves for example can cause exhaustion and fatigue which can lead to dehydration, heat strokes, and deaths.  For those working outdoors, including ground crew maintainers, they are especially vulnerable to the effects of heat waves.

Those working under extremely cold weather conditions also carry a major risk to their health and safety.  Working under very cold conditions also presents physical and mental dangers and risks to workers, especially those working outdoors.  Both extremely hot and extremely cold conditions can cause fatigue, exhaustion, and stress to any ordinary individual, much more to individuals working under these conditions.  The use of energy while working can further fatigue and stress the workers and can compromise the quality of their work and their safety as well as the safety of other people.

In aviation, ground workers working under extremely hot and extremely cold weather conditions are very much at risk for exhaustion and fatigue.  As discussed above, they can suffer from heat strokes and heat exhaustion.  During de-icing activities, they are at risk for hypothermia and frostbite.  They can also become disorientated by the cold, with their mental and physical performance compromised.  Fatigued and exhausted ground crew maintainers are likely to suffer injury while undertaking their tasks, or are prone to commit errors which can later cause technical problems for the aircraft.  Accidents may arise from such human errors.  The studies above also highlight the fact that the aviation industry and its ground maintenance crew usually work in shifts, and sometimes these shifts do not create ideal working conditions for the workers.  In some instances, the shifts often take more than the ideal number of work hours for the workers, with some workers working 10 to 12 hours.  Under extreme weather conditions, these work hours are dangerous and exhausting.  They create conditions for accidents and human errors.  The concern here would not just be confined to the safety of the workers, but to the safety of the passengers as well as other aviation personnel.  The combination of different issues such as fatigue, sleep deprivation, poor environmental conditions can all make up a very oppressive work environment which can compromise the quality of the individual’s work.

Mitigation/recommendations

Atak and Kingma (2011) discuss the importance of establishing a safety culture over and above production or commercial interests in any organization.  The authors highlight the importance of establishing a strong and sound internal safety system, one which has a strong structure for quality assurance.  This must apply especially for technicians who often work under time pressure (Atak & Kingma, 2011).  It is important for management to clearly match safety goals and assurances with the commercial interests of the company.  It is important to promote a good and effective safety culture (Atak & Kingma, 2011).  This safety culture would unavoidably address the working conditions of the crew, including ground crew maintainers (Atak & Kingma, 2011).  Measures to reduce and prevent fatigue would have to be made part of their safety culture.

Various measures to prevent weather fatigue have been recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2015a).  To combat extreme cold weather for instance, they recommend that individuals venturing out under these conditions, especially those working under these conditions should wear warm clothing appropriate for such weather.  Several layers of loose clothing have to be worn as layering helps ensure insulation and loose clothing helps promote good blood circulation (CDC, 2015a).  Protective gloves have to be worn, including hats and hoods for the head.  Where the conditions are also wet, waterproof gear must also be worn, including waterproof shoes with good traction.  These clothes and gear must not restrict the individual’s movement or block their eyesight (CDC, 2015a).

It is also important for individuals especially those working under these conditions to recognize initial signs of hypothermia and frostbite. Hypothermia must be recognized early in order to ensure early management and to prevent accidents and injury (CDC, 2015a).  Signs of frostbite must also be recognized and the worker must be able to carry out the necessary measures to either prevent it from progressing further.  It is also important for companies to set lesser exposure times for workers to such cold conditions (CDC, 2015a).  This may imply increased number of shifts for workers in the aviation industry, especially ground crew maintainers.

The CDC (2015b) also recommends measures in order to prevent heat stress and heat strokes.  It is important for employers to decrease heat stress and prevent heat strokes by setting forth engineering and work practice regulations.  Engineering controls may include increasing air velocity, the use of reflective or heat absorbing barriers, as well as the reduction of steam leaks and wet floors in the work areas (CDC, 2015b).  It is also important for these employers to set forth work regulations which would be able to reduce work stress and prevent heat exhaustion.  These work regulations include limiting time under the heat and or increasing the worker’s recovery time in the cooler environments (CDC, 2015b).  Special tools must also be used by these workers, especially tools which would make their work easier and decrease manual strain.  The number of workers on the ground must also be increased in order to speed up the work and reduce the period of exposure of workers to the heat (CDC, 2015b).  The supervisors as well as the workers themselves must also be efficiently trained in recognizing signs of heat stress.  A buddy system for workers can also be implemented.  This system would partner workers with each other, mostly for them to watch out and observe each other for signs of heat stress in the workplace (CDC, 2015b).  Self-monitoring of workers must also be taught and instructed in order to ensure that these workers would be able to recognize when they may be experiencing heat stress.  These workers must also be properly hydrated, and must be able to access potable drinking water within easy access to their work area (CDC, 2015b).  They must be encouraged to drink regularly to prevent dehydration.  Weather alerts must also be made available to the workers and the supervisors in order to detect when possible heat waves may occur and when the extra precautions must be taken to reduce the impact of such heat waves (CDC, 2015b).

Regardless of the extreme weather conditions, workers in the aviation industry, especially the ground crew maintainers must be properly trained to handle and manage these extreme work conditions.  It is incumbent on airline owners and supervisors to ensure that they understand the conditions upon which their workers and working and that they are implementing the necessary precautions and measures to protect the health and safety of their workers (Hobbes, Avers, & Hiles, 2011).  The training of the workers must include work-site specific conditions, mostly in terms of recognizing the signs and symptoms of heat stress or hypothermia (Chang & Wang, 2010).  Early intervention is always the key in preventing these health issues on the ground.  The workplace must also be properly equipped to handle these extreme weather conditions and possible health issues arising from these conditions (Marais & Robichaud, 2012).  This would imply the importance of having properly trained medical personnel on-site who can efficiently and immediately manage heat stress or hypothermia and other negative effects of weather-related fatigue.  The aviation company must also ensure that its workers are wearing and are properly equipped with the necessary safety gear while working under extreme weather conditions (Marais & Robichaud, 2012).  There must also be regular rest breaks for these workers.  The rest breaks must be based on the weather conditions present during the specific work day.  Rest areas must also be able to provide the needed relief for these workers (Latorella & Prabhu, 2000).  For those working under cold weather conditions, their rest area must be able to provide warmth and relief from the cold.  Warm drinks or soup must also be readily available.  For those working under extreme heat, their rest areas must be cool and shaded, with the proper hydration options available (water and other cooling drinks) (CDC, 2015a; CDC, 2015b).

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  1. Atak, A., & Kingma, S. (2011). Safety culture in an aircraft maintenance organisation: A view from the inside. Safety science, 49(2), 268-278.
  2. Centers for Disease Control (2015a). When Working in the Cold, Be Prepared and Be Aware.
  3. Centers for Disease Control (2015b). Heat Stress – Recommendations.
  4. Chang, Y. H., & Wang, Y. C. (2010). Significant human risk factors in aircraft maintenance technicians. Safety science, 48(1), 54-62.
  5. Coffel, E., & Horton, R. (2015). Climate change and the impact of extreme temperatures on aviation. Weather, climate, and society, 7(1), 94-102.
  6. Environment Protection Agency (2015). Climate Impacts on Human Health.
  7. Hobbs, A., Avers, K. B., & Hiles, J. J. (2011). Fatigue risk management in aviation maintenance: current best practices and potential future countermeasures (No. DOT/FAA/AM-11/10). National Aeronautics and Space Administration Moffett Field Ca Ames Research Center.
  8. Hockey, R. (2013). The psychology of fatigue: work, effort and control. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  9. Jacobsen, S. R. (2012). Evacuation and rescue in the Barents Sea, Critical issues for safe petroleum activity. University of Stavanger.
  10. Latorella, K. A., & Prabhu, P. V. (2000). A review of human error in aviation maintenance and inspection. International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics, 26(2), 133-161.
  11. Marais, K. B., & Robichaud, M. R. (2012). Analysis of trends in aviation maintenance risk: An empirical approach. Reliability Engineering & System Safety, 106, 104-118.
  12. Torres, Y., Nadeau, S., & Morency, F. (2016). Study of fatigue and workload among aircraft deicing technicians. Occupational Ergonomics, 13(2), 79-90.
  13. Williamson, A., Lombardi, D. A., Folkard, S., Stutts, J., Courtney, T. K., & Connor, J. L. (2011). The link between fatigue and safety. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 43(2), 498-515.
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