COLA: fatigue study on the pandemic's effect on air traffic controllers' work situation

Published: 18 May 2021 16:00

A research study is currently underway where LFV is conducting fatigue studies on various shift rotations and pandemic-related impact on the work situation of air traffic controllers.

Maximilian Peukert, Human Factors specialist at LFV's Research and Innovation Unit and one of those working in the COLA (Controller and Friend Alertness Study) project, explains:
- Everyone has probably experienced that attention can decrease during a long drive due to increased fatigue. This is also relevant in aviation.

Fatigue among operational staff should be controlled as much as possible in order to maintain the high level of safety, but also to promote individual health. For example, shift work and inconvenient working hours can have a long-term negative impact on health. Therefore, we are conducting the COLA study as a first step to better understand fatigue and its impact on air traffic controllers' work situation.

We are particularly interested in how fatigue develops during a single shift, during several subsequent shifts during a work period, and over a longer period of months or even years.

We look at how, for example, fatigue develops when you mainly work night shifts or when night shifts are followed by day shifts. With the ongoing pandemic, we have also questioned whether it has an impact on fatigue in the workplace.

For example, could it be that too little traffic, especially during day shifts, leads to quicker fatigue?

Research results for the operational activities
The study is a research project where the results will be evaluated and discussed scientifically but also made available to LFV's operational activities.
- We strive to further develop our activities based on the results. We do not want to bore intelligent adults with the same general information over and over again - like going to bed early. Instead, our vision is to establish holistic measures and recommendations, such as shifts that are adapted to each other or individual chronotypes,’ says Maximilian Peukert.

Increased automation, which can also cause fatigue, will affect the work environment. At a later stage, concrete measures, recommendations, or changes in the work environment can be tested.

Pandemic-adapted implementation
The situation with the ongoing pandemic has meant that the study cannot be monitored directly on site. Therefore, a completely digital implementation was chosen where the study participants respond using an online questionnaire in advance.

Maximilian Peukert says,
- The main study is carried out on a computer at one of our control centres, where participants are guided through various questions together with a test of reaction time using our test software.

We have already had very good experiences with this approach from the first study in the autumn of 2020. The participants were able to complete the study flexibly and easily without on-site guidance.

This is the second study and here we focus on night shifts with a self-assessment protocol to determine how fatigue changes in the short term during the shift.

Later on, the research study will also collect data from other offices.