Shift Overload

This afternoon yet another exhausted train crew were unwilling participants in a derailment and subsequent fire. The poor people in that part of Saskatchewan are concerned., I have read no news of the crew or whether this was yet another track fault or someone snoozed through a signal.

A recent article in the news indicated that train crews, due to the random scheduling of their work, are often exhausted and can fall asleep at the controls. A study had been under way by Transport Canada but was killed — the rail union carried it on to conclusion. Some decades ago train crews worked a scheduled shift but under the new and improved management they are scheduled without warning on an almost random, rotating basis. SO few have the luxury of a decent nights sleep.

Almost three decades ago, when I took over management of a 24×7 datacenter operation, I made a point of reading everything I could find about the issues of staffing this type of operation. What I found was a population of research that indicated it took almost two weeks before a person stabilized on a particular time schedule. So I tried to find people who liked to work nights to staff my datacenter and did not inflict the evil of rotating schedules on my staff.

But I found that I am the lost soul crying in the wilderness. While commercial aviation flight crews have proscribed hours — the occasional air tragedy shows that this is widely abused. Train crews, hospital staff and many others find themselves in this fix. Before she retired, my wife was working part time at the local hospital — her schedule was two days on days, three days off, two days on nights (12 hour shifts), rinse, repeat. Plus being available to come in for any shifts that may come up short — if she was really exhausted I would bring her to work and collect the body afterwards. No one seemed interested as to whether this exhausted person could actually do the work. The depressing part is that there was nothing unusual about how abusive this schedule was — and had there been a problem I am sure that the ‘system’ would have burned her personally rather than looking at how people were scheduled. And from looking at how my son–in-law and daughter-in-law are scheduled, this seems totally mainstream.

The problem I have with this is that all these people are in positions of public safety. If they made a mistake then people might die. But that risk seems ok — by adopting a staff scheduling model that spreads the people very thin and makes wild assumptions about their ability to cope while exhausted. In a sense they have individually accepted that this is how they are expected to work — but if something goes wrong they personally will be liable. We have seen this model many times before. It is the private profit, public risk model. By refusing to staff and schedule at levels that would maximize worker capabilities, these groups are increasing their profits at the expense of public harm should one of these over-tired employees fail at a critical moment. Lac Megantic was just an example — the potential is everywhere.

Is this really a world that we want for ourselves or our children?