Many air traffic controllers have no certainty about taking a toilet break while carrying out safety-critical roles which could endanger air passengers, their union has told a select committee.
The New Zealand Air Line Pilots' Association (NZALPA), told the education and workforce select 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.
In a statement, the association said proposed legislation could require controllers (ATCs) to work continuously for up to nine and a half hours without any rest and/or meal break.
Association president Tim Robinson said that, given air traffic control was a highly stressful occupation with the highest need for mental alertness, restricting the ability to have normal breaks like other workers was irresponsible and unsafe, and could potentially lead to a serious incident or accident.
The controllers' employer, Airways, says it is surprised at the association's comments.
Robinson said many ATCs, particularly those based at regional airports, were 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, ATCs must maintain continuous visual watch throughout the duration of their shift, and often had to respond to unexpected and sometimes urgent situations involving the safety of aircraft.
The association want the committee to consider the safety impact of excluding Air Traffic 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.''
Robinson asked whether New Zealand had to wait for a major accident to occur in order to highlight the need for proper rest and meal breaks to be legislated.
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 reflected the wording of the current legislation, the association was calling for it to be amended to allow controllers the same meal and rest breaks as other workers.
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 air space, posing a threat to the health and safety of not only the controller, but also to the airspace users and 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.
Airways general manager of air traffic services, Tim Boyle, said there had been long standing meal and toilet break provisions at regional towers, which have been endorsed by NZALPA.
He said these had not been raised as an issue with the state owned enterprise.
Due to low traffic levels at some aerodromes, air traffic control services are provided by one air traffic controller at a time (solo watch) with two shifts per day. During each shift at these towers there are typically several sustained periods of more than 30 minutes with no traffic movements where controllers can have a meal and take a toilet break.
''We have clear and documented guidance enabling our people to take these breaks while maintaining the safety of the airspace.''
Boyle said Airways was satisfied that its approach to solo watch breaks is safe and is in practise at airports internationally.
''Additionally the agreement with our people, which was endorsed by NZALPA, provides a controller on solo watch with an additional 30 minutes of annual leave entitlement per shift, this can add up to an additional 10 days of annual leave per year.''
A normal air traffic control shift is seven and a half hours. Extensions to shifts beyond this are infrequent and it is extremely rare for a shift to go the maximum permissible of nine and a half hours.
The association is also fighting any continuation of the 90 day trial period which meant 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," Robinson said.