NTC proposes solutions to BFM 'teething problems'

NTC releases fatigue management paper, outlining proposals to improve the scheme for the trucking industry

NTC proposes solutions to BFM 'teething problems'
NTC proposes solutions to BFM 'teething problems'
By Brad Gardner |September 1, 2010

The National Transport Commission (NTC) has released its long-awaited discussion paper on basic fatigue management (BFM), outlining possible reforms to improve the scheme for the trucking industry.

Due to be released earlier this year, the paper suggests altering work and rest conditions following complaints from representative groups they are too restrictive and deterring operators from enrolling in BFM.

The paper proposes replacing the requirement for drivers to have a 24-hour rest after a week’s work (84 hours) with a 48-hour break after 12 days (144 hours of work). The change is designed to give business more flexibility and drivers more time to spend with their family.

The paper proposes giving drivers the opportunity to split the mandatory seven-hour rest break in any 24-hour period into two blocks in case they cannot find a suitable spot to have a sustained rest.

The NTC also recommends amending the definition of ‘night rest’ so the period runs from 9pm to 9am instead of 10pm to 8am to allow regional and livestock carriers to start work earlier.

"Following the implementation of the new fatigue laws in late 2009, some stakeholders raised concerns about whether some minor changes could be made to the laws that would give industry greater flexibility in the scheduling of hours and rest," NTC CEO Nick Dimopoulos says.

"Many of the issues simply reflect the ‘teething problems’ that are commonly experienced with major new reforms, as well as the change in culture from one that holds drivers solely accountable for fatigue management to one that holds everyone in the supply chain accountable."

BFM permits drivers to work up to 14 hours a day in return for meeting accreditation requirements such as medical assessments, training and auditing. Those who are unaccredited are limited to 12-hour workdays under the standard hours scheme.

Companies can also apply to work under advanced fatigue management (AFM), which allows them to create their own scheme in return for meeting stringent safety standards. The NTC says those accredited in fatigue management tend to be safer companies.

The trucking industry has pushed hard for reform, citing the importance of split rests due to restrictions on parking, the size of trucks and a lack of rest areas preventing drivers from sleeping for a sustained period of time.

"In these circumstances the driver is vulnerable to disturbances that prevent lengthy blocks of sleep, including extreme weather conditions, noise from vehicles, livestock, refrigeration units or other disturbances which cannot be controlled," the NTC says.

"They argue that where disturbance cannot be controlled, they should have the option of moving the vehicle to a more suitable location and taking a second block of rest in circumstances where good rest can be achieved, while still getting ‘credit’ for the first block of rest."

Currently, drivers can only use a split rest as a defence if they are taken to court accused of breaking fatigue management law. Furthermore, the break can only be split into one six-hour and one or more two-hour rests.

"The split cannot, for instance, be taken as two four-hour breaks (and so on)," the NTC says.

In return for split rests, the trucking industry has proposed an increase in the rest period from seven hours under current law to eight hours. It wants drivers to be given the ability to break their rest into six-hour and two-hour blocks if necessary.

Under the proposal, the longer part of the break must be taken away from the truck or in an approved sleeper berth.

The industry is also adamant the 24-hour rest rule must go. It contends that a 14-day cycle with two days’ rest is better for drivers because they will have more time to spend with their families.

"Drivers argue that the 24-hour break is often taken in a remote area which they find leads to boredom and frustration rather than rest and recovery," the NTC says.

"The other possible benefit relates to business efficiency and productivity. It is argued that the 14-day cycle will lead to higher levels of driver satisfaction and therefore better driver retention.

"It also offers more flexibility to businesses whose drivers are constrained by the current requirement to take 24 hours off after no more than 84 hours of work time."

Regional and livestock carriers have also complained of the night rest provision, which applies from 10pm to 8am. Drivers are required to rest for at least seven continuous hours during this period, meaning the earliest they can start work is 5am.

Furthermore, the NTC says drivers cannot exceed 36 hours a week working between 12am and 6am or beyond 12 hours a day.

"Critics argue that drivers (particularly in rural areas) have become accustomed to going to bed early and getting up early and that the 10pm to 8am window places unreasonable limits on their capacity to start early whenever they deem necessary," the NTC says.

"It is argued that simply shifting that window to start at say 9pm would allow drivers to start work at 4am and still achieve adequate restorative rest."
The NTC says regional operators traditionally start early, particularly in the summer months when dealing with livestock. It says drivers prefer to start as early as 3am or 4am.

During discussions on proposals to improve the scheme, the NTC spoke to fatigue experts Dr Drew Dawson, Dr Adam Fletcher and Professor Ann Williamson.

While supportive of the proposal to increase the rest period to eight hours, the experts questioned the worth of a two-hour break.

"Naps of one to two hours duration are more likely to produce sleep inertia than shorter naps," a report from the discussion with the experts says.

Concerns were also raised over breaking a driver’s sleep into two periods because it might decrease the value of the rest break.

"This concern is based on previous research which demonstrated that truck drivers do not get sleep hours equivalent to the hours of rest available," the report says.

Williamson says the proposal for a 14-day cycle can be created under the advanced fatigue management (AFM) module. According to the report, Dawson believes split rests and a 14-day cycle should be considered on a case-by-case basis similar to AFM applications.

However, Fletcher says he is comfortable with the proposal because of the conditions imposed on companies working under BFM.

The NTC is now calling for trucking operators to respond to the proposed changes before October 8.

"Any change to the agreed national heavy vehicle fatigue laws, even a minor change, has the potential to significantly impact road safety for drivers and the community and must therefore be carefully considered," Dimopoulos says.

Feedback will be used for the final report, which will go to a fatigue maintenance group to consider in late October.

It is unclear when the reforms will be introduced if they are accepted. The NTC says the timing will depend on the development of the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator, which will be operating in 2013. The NTC will also need to consult state and territory regulators.

The Regulator will be responsible for abolishing regulatory inconsistencies plaguing interstate trucking operators.

What do you think of the proposals to reform BFM? Leave your thoughts below or contact ATN.

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