Critical safety roles will operate without access to basic human need – NZ controller unions

Many of New Zealand’s controllers are carrying out their essential safety-critical roles without the certainty of even taking a regular toilet break, their union told the country’s Education and Workforce Select Committee earlier this week.

The New Zealand Air Line Pilots’ Association (NZALPA), who represent nearly every controller in the country and an increasing number of Airways’ New Zealand flight services staff, told the committee that changes to the proposed Employment Relations Amendment Bill (ERA Bill) were ‘safety-critical’ to allow controllers to take a break during each shift.

The committee heard that the proposed legislation could require controllers to work continuously for up to 9.5 hours without any rest and/or meal break.

NZALPA president and international airline pilot Tim Robinson said that, given air traffic control is widely recognised as one of the most stressful occupations in the world with the highest need for mental alertness, restricting the ability for controllers from having ‘normal’ breaks like other workers is irresponsible and unsafe, and could potentially lead to a serious incident or accident.

“Many controllers, 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,” Robinson said.

“While many of these regional airports would seem to have relatively low levels of aircraft movement, controllers 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 committee to consider the safety impact of excluding controllers from having mandatory rest and meal breaks because it is an essential service.

“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 fatal accidents in the past.

“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?” Robinson asked.

The proposed ERA Bill outlines that employees are entitled to and must be provided with mandatory rest and meal breaks during their work shift. However this requirement excludes those employed in an ‘essential service’ including controllers.

Although the proposed ERA Bill reflects the wording of the current legislation, NZALPA is calling for it to be amended to allow controlelrs the same meal and rest breaks as other workers.

NZALPA also explained to the committee that under the current law, controllers have had to come up with creative ways to be able to relieve themselves while still maintaining watch of the airspace, posing a threat to the health and safety of not only the controller, but also to the airspace users and, ultimately, the travelling public.

“What we have is proposed legislation which provides mandatory breaks for relatively low-risk retail and hospitality workers, and doesn’t provide mandatory breaks in a stressful and challenging role like air traffic control.  It’s absurd,” said Robinson.

Meanwhile the committee also heard concerns in regard to the continuance of the 90 day trial period. In its submission NZALPA explained that these provisions allow New Zealand’s most vulnerable employees to be exposed to ‘fire at will’ provisions.

“Within the aviation industry often the people affected by these provisions are young graduate pilots with large student loans, on low wages and far less likely to raise legitimate safety concerns for fear of losing their jobs.”

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