Building a fatigue management scheme that works for the Bush

At the end of November, National Council held a full day workshop with staff from the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator Project Office and the nation’s two most senior fatigue management experts: Professors Ann Williamson and Drew Dawson.

This wasn’t some pie-in-the-sky dreaming exercise.

Back on 20 May this year, the nation’s transport Ministers quietly gave the NHVR Project Office the official go-ahead to open up the national fatigue management arrangements and build some better solutions for operators who aren’t happy with ‘Standard Hours’ and ‘BFM’.

It was a decision that the ALRTA had spent almost a year lobbying to achieve, with former President David Smith and I visiting Ministers, key officials and experts right across the country during 2010-11. (The high-profile news back on 20 May, of course, was the decision to fix the counting time problem – but this win will have much bigger long-term significance).

A little while ago, the NHVR Project Office came to our National Council with an offer: if we were willing to put in the time and effort, we could have the first crack at trying to develop a workable new scheme for the Bush.

National Council said ‘yes’, and we’re now on our way.

… what do we want?

Our workshop was focused on three questions: what would we want in a flexible fatigue management scheme that works properly for rural and regional transporters, how would we make it practical for our members to sign up, and how could it be made affordable?

And let’s give praise where it’s due: it’s very clear that the two Professors and the NHVR staff are actually excited about the job they’ve been given, actually want to find solutions and – most importantly – actually look like they have the ideas and energy needed to pull this off.

We gave the Project Office quite a few things to think about, and we welcomed their commitment to work with us and all relevant parts of the industry in developing these fatigue arrangements.

… what does flexibility need to look like?

At the end of the day, Councillors and members who took part in the workshop had a whiteboard with quite a number of issues. I won’t list them all here but, in just a couple of sentences, we’re looking for a fatigue scheme that has the flexibility to cope with things like these four challenges:

  • Irregular days. Whether it’s a day that goes longer than intended due to a downer, or a rest break that ends being split, we’re looking for a scheme that doesn’t trap drivers in a set of numbers that simply don’t recognise that a lot of work in the bush has nothing like the regularity and routines of the on-highway jobs.
  • Long, slow days. A lot of rural work involves quite long days in which there’s little driving and sometimes not even that much loading activity. The fatigue impacts and risks are quite different to being constantly on the go in the city or on the highway, under the hammer, trying to hit a deadline in a far off city.
  • Long runs to market. While there’s a lot of low-intensity driving in the bush, there are also some really long runs needed from time to time. If it’s not a back-to-back shuttle-run, can the Professors agree there’s a way to manage those driving tasks safely?
  • Fortnightly rosters. For drivers who go away for several days, the loss of a ‘twelve day roster’  under the 2008 laws has been a real problem that’s seen complaints about being forced to spend time, and money, trapped in some country pub away from home and the family. If you’re just poking along on the days you’re away, can’t this be managed safely?

… what might a new scheme look like?

It’s early days on any details.

It’s clearly going to be a requirement under any new fatigue arrangement for the bush that operators will have to be accredited, and drivers will need some training and regular medicals. That also means that operators will need to sign up to be audited by an independent person, just like the many current accreditation schemes.

However, there won’t be a need to hire your own ‘fatigue expert’ to sign off all your hours, and all your procedures, or to give you ‘permission’ to make use of more flexible hours.

What’s intended it that there will be ‘templates’ of hours that are freely available for accredited operators to use.

A template is going to be nothing more than a set of hours, and the rules for when and how you use them. Existing sets of hours – like ‘Standard Hours’ and ‘BFM’ – can be thought of as ‘just another template’.

An interesting question will be whether the Professors will be able to get to a ‘template’ that has the level of simplicity and flexibility found in the WA fatigue management scheme. There’s more work needed to see if we can get that far.

… where to from here?

Coming out of the recent workshop, National Council has formed a working group of several members and Councillors, who’ll be doing more of the detailed work with the Professors and NHVR staff.

This will be a major piece of work for National Council in 2012, as the NHVR has a commitment to take
a final scheme back to all the Transport Ministers before the end of 2012.

Importantly, Ministers have already agreed to two key points:

  1. the NHVR is doing all this work simply by making full use of the powers that arealready available under the national laws. That means there is no need for years of delay while amendments are drafted, approved and passed through Parliament;
  2. the NHVR will be in charge of running the new scheme. Operators will not need to get separate approvals from each State, and the States will not be amending or varying the NHVR’s approved scheme.

These two decisions mean that, when the NHVR is up and running, it should be able to get a new scheme running pretty quickly – it will probably be the most important thing it delivers in its very first days.

… and an historical footnote

By my count, this will be the nation’s fifth major piece of work on reforming the fatigue management system of the Eastern and Southern States. Australia’s been going at this for fifteen years now. It hasn’t always been easy, but there’s an incredible amount of experience that’s been built up, across industry and across government, over that time.

The mood amongst National Council was that we really might be getting somewhere with this work from the NHVR. A big part of that was the very clear message, from the NHVR and from our Councillors, that we want to do this together. The willingness to share ideas and insight, to negotiate and to really try to create something useful is going to be essential to our work in the next few months.

A more flexible fatigue management scheme for the bush might just be within reach. For operators on the East Coast of Australia, it will only have been fifteen years in the making!

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