In search of an objective quantitative framework to assess fitness for duty

Daniel Mollicone

When we are fatigued we are impaired. Our reactions are slowed, and we experience lapses of attention, become impulsive, lose situational awareness, and become prone to distraction. The greater the level of fatigue, the worse the impairment.

NTSB and NASA sources estimate that fatigue is a factor in one in five aviation accidents. It stands to reason that if we all were better at managing fatigue risk, as an industry we would experience 20% fewer accidents. That is a big opportunity to “Elevate our Standards.”

Fatigue risk management is a shared responsibility between the flight department and individual employees. The flight department is responsible for making available duty schedules that provide for adequate rest opportunity. Each employee is accountable for getting the sleep that he or she needs to be rested and fit for duty.

FAA regulation Part 91.13 states: “No person may operate an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.” This provision is interpreted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as requiring that pilots report fit for duty. However, FAA regulations do not provide an objective quantitative standard related to fitness for duty. Thus, fitness for duty requirements remain vague and subject to individual interpretation. We are forced to self-assess whether we are fit for duty based on our own personal standards.

The problem is that scientific studies have shown that when we have sleep debt, we systematically underestimate our own alertness deficits. So even the consummate professional with earnest intentions may get it wrong sometimes.

What is needed is an objective quantitative standard to assess our alertness.

The Psychomotor Vigilance Test (PVT) has emerged as a gold standard measure of alertness. What sets the PVT apart from other assessment approaches is that test results data are not affected by aptitude or learning. The use of the PVT to quantify alertness provides an objective assessment on an absolute scale. This confers a number of advantages over subjective approaches, such as the ability to compare one individual’s alertness with that of another, track one person’s fatigue levels over time, and benchmark against industry norms.

We measure what we value, and what we measure we tend to improve. By putting in place a framework with objective quantitative standards we create a reliable means to ensure fitness for duty and converge on a pathway to “Elevate our Standards.”

Summary and bio

Dr. Daniel Mollicone is an internationally recognized leader in the field of fatigue risk management. A co-founder of Pulsar Informatics, Dr. Mollicone has acted as principal investigator or co-investigator on research funded by NASA, the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Transportation, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the National Institutes of Health. He has co-authored numerous publications on topics of neurobehavioral performance measurement and fatigue modeling. Dr. Mollicone holds degrees in Engineering Physics and Biomedical Engineering.