Workshop Talks: Air safety pinned on isolated controllers

May 17, 2011

by Htun Lin

Threatening to fire every air traffic controller who has been “sleeping on the job,” Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said, “We will not sleep” until this problem is solved. It’s easy to vilify ordinary workers. The truth is, those who control the conditions of work, like LaHood, are really the ones who have been sleeping on the job for the last several decades.

The problem of acute fatigue among air traffic controllers has been known. It was studied by sleep scientists genuinely concerned about the workers and public safety. Studies have shown that the kind of shift scheduling to which controllers are subjected affects behavior in the same way several alcoholic drinks would.

That is especially true of constant shift changes and stacking eight-hour shifts as close together as possible, like working five shifts in three days. These shifts with breaks of only eight hours in between are known by controllers as “rattlers,” because they say they double back and bite those who work them. We who work in healthcare know this all too well.

Many countries like France, Germany, Canada and Australia have taken NASA-sponsored sleep studies in the U.S seriously, and now allow napping by controllers during breaks in their work shifts. But neither science nor workers’ pleas on the job have been on the radar of the budget-obsessed bosses in the U.S. government ever since Reagan destroyed the PATCO air traffic controllers union in 1981.

There is a parallel between healthcare workers and air traffic controllers in how quickly administrative hacks like the Secretary of Transportation and our HMO chiefs scapegoat workers when the source of the problem is systemic and structural. We, too, face growing stress from speed-up, as patients’ lives are at stake.

At the same time we are constantly visited by management groups lecturing us about their priorities to increase revenue recovery and limiting use of our time providing care and checking on medical procedures. No wonder a recent study revealed that between 44,000 and 98,000 Americans die each year in U.S. hospitals due to preventable medical errors.

The new head of the HMO where I work has opted for LaHood’s line. He wants to “clean house” and do a staff turnover. In a manner reminiscent of Reagan’s firing of the PATCO workers, our new hospital chief told concerned nurses and social workers, “If you don’t like the way things are here, I suggest you find employment somewhere else.” Unions are simply enabling managerial abuse of workers in the shop, because they care more about “dues” process than due process. The union simply leaves individuals to twist in the wind.

A new “Attendance Policy” deprives us union workers of due process as guaranteed by existing labor contracts. If you have three one-minute tardies in a quarter, you will face a first hearing, reneging on their six-minute grace period to sign into their new electronic TIME system. They don’t care if you were helping a patient as soon as you put your bags down. They don’t care if you had technical problems signing in.

They don’t care if you just “doubled back,” that is, volunteered for a second shift after only eight hours since you left work. They have even reneged on the contractual obligation to pay us time and a half for doubling back during 12-hour rest periods. Like air traffic controllers, this doubling back means occasionally a few of us may nod out on the job due to sleep deprivation.

Our cowardly union reps are not only going along with this scheme, they are part of the “tribunal” whenever any of us are pulled in the office for another disciplinary hearing. Regional headquarters is now trying to make workers at our hospital scapegoats for all the fines and threatened closures imposed by state and federal investigators in the last couple of years.

Solidarity used to mean “an injury to one is an injury to all,” not just an empty slogan. The persistent class war against workers has intensified in this economic crisis. There will be no resolution until we again fight for ourselves over these shop floor issues in our own organizations.

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