Air Traffic Controllers call for legislated rest and meal breaks
Basic human needs became a public topic of discussion when Air Traffic Controllers (ATCs) took to Parliament to voice their concerns on the proposed amendments to the Employment Relations Act (ERA).
In May the Select Committee heard that the proposed legislation could require ATCs to work continuously for up to 9.5 hours without any rest and/or meal break.
Air Traffic Control is widely recognised as one of the most stressful occupations in the world with the highest need for mental alertness. The current and proposed restrictions on the ability for ATCs from having ‘normal’ breaks like other workers is unsafe and has the potential to lead to a serious incident or accident.
“Many ATCs, particularly those based at regional airports, are often solo controllers working the shift by themselves. This means that they have the sole duty to ensure that the aerodrome and surrounding airspace remains safe,” NZALPA President Tim Robinson explained.
“While many of these regional airports would seem to have relatively low levels of aircraft movement, ATC’s must maintain continuous visual watch throughout the duration of their shift, and often have to respond to unexpected and sometimes urgent situations involving the safety of aircraft.”
In its presentation NZALPA pressed the Select Committee to consider the safety impact of excluding ATCs from having mandatory rest and meal breaks because it is an essential service.
Addressing media after the Select Committee appearance, Robinson said that in many comparable jurisdictions such as Canada, every control tower is routinely staffed by more than one person.
“In many countries in the European Union it is a legal requirement to have more than one person on duty following on from fatal accidents.
“Does New Zealand have to wait for a major accident to occur in order to highlight the need for proper rest and meal breaks to be legislated?” he asked.
The proposed ERA Bill outlines employees’ entitlement to, and provision made for, mandatory rest and meal breaks during their work shift. However this requirement excludes those employed in an ‘essential service’ including ATCs.
Although the proposed ERA Bill reflects the wording of the current legislation, NZALPA submitted for this to be amended to allow ATCs the same meal and rest breaks as other workers.
NZALPA also explained to the Select Committee that under the current law, ATCs have had to come up with creative ways to be able to relieve themselves while still maintaining watch of the air space. This poses a threat to the health and safety of not only the ATC, but also to the airspace users and, ultimately, the travelling public.
Airways General Manager Air Traffic Services Tim Boyle, was contacted by media following NZALPA’s submission but replied that “these had not been
raised as an issue with the state owned enterprise,” and that “there had been long standing meal and toilet break provisions at regional towers, which have been endorsed by NZALPA.”
This is disputed by ATC Industrial Officer, Dave Mainwaring who said that issues relating to ATC breaks have been brought up on numerous occasions, particularly during contract negotiations.
“In our on-going negotiations starting in February this year, Tim Boyle as negotiations leader for Airways gave us a flat refusal to discuss any breaks at domestic towers,” recalls Mainwaring.
“Our position has remained unchanged for the last 25 years, that provisions must be made to allow ATCs to have breaks free from all duty. The current arrangement does not allow meal ‘breaks’ or freedom from duty ‘while your pants are around your ankles’.”
The Select Committee is due to report its findings to Parliament on 1 August.
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