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Air Traffic Controllers Asleep on the Job... Still

Shift workers of all types face challenges to getting enough sleep while managing long hours, overnight shifts, and changing schedules that fluctuate between day and night.
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Here's some news of workers sleeping on the job that's downright scary. A news investigation produced this story and footage of air traffic controllers at Westchester County Airport sleeping during their shifts. The video, provided to the news outlet by an employee in the air traffic control tower at Westchester Airport, also shows controllers reading and using laptops and cell phones while on duty. The FAA bans its controllers from use of cell phones, personal reading material and electric devices while on duty. Sleeping is prohibited anywhere in air traffic control towers.

All of these violations are alarming and dangerous and pose a serious public safety problem. It is important, I believe, to separate the issue of air traffic controllers sleeping on the job from their choice to play with laptops and cell phones when they are supposed to be working. These video images of air traffic controllers slumped over and sleeping at their stations is truly frightening. But the issue of sleep deprivation among air traffic controllers is a very real one and means that some instances of falling asleep -- however dangerous and wrong -- is not entirely the controllers' fault, or even within their control.

Unfortunately, this is not a new problem. We've seen several instances of air traffic controllers falling asleep on duty in recent months. A few of the cases recently reported to the FAA include:

• A controller at a Miami regional tower fell asleep during an overnight shift. This regional center is responsible for controlling air traffic for most of Florida, as well as parts of the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean.

• One controller slept for five hours while working a midnight shift at a Tennessee airport tower.

• A supervisor at Washington, D.C.'s Reagan National Airport fell asleep for nearly a half hour during a night shift. At the time, the supervisor was the only air traffic controller on duty in the tower.

In response to these and other cases, the FAA in 2011 revised its regulations for air traffic controllers to include additional time for rest between shifts. The FAA:

• Raised the minimum amount of time off between work shifts to 9 hours from 8 hours

• Prohibited air traffic controllers from swapping shifts without having a minimum of 9 hours off in between shifts

• Increased supervisor coverage in air traffic control towers during late night and early morning shifts

• Prohibited air traffic controllers from picking up an overnight shift after a day off

These adjustments are a step in the right direction, but they don't go far enough. Managing schedules for shift workers in these high-pressure jobs where public safety is at stake is too important to settle for improvements that don't actually solve the problem.

Shift workers of all types face challenges to getting enough sleep while managing long hours, overnight shifts, and changing schedules that fluctuate between day and night. Research shows that:

• People who engage in shift work get less sleep overall than those of us who work more regular hours.

• Shift workers are at higher risk for illness and chronic disease.

• The sleep deprivation associated with shift work increase the risk of accidents, injuries and mistakes in high-profile, public-safety related industries like medicine and law enforcement, as well as air traffic control.

In addition to making people more prone to accidents and injury, sleep deprivation causes a number of negative effects -- both physical and psychological -- that can impair the on-the-job performance of air traffic controllers and other shift workers. Sleep deprivation:

• Slows reaction time

• Interferes with memory

• Causes fatigue

• Compromises judgment

• Impairs the ability to retain new information

I think we can all agree that we don't want the people responsible for guiding our planes to be sluggish, slow-reacting, forgetful, fatigued and of questionable judgment. But that's exactly what being sleep deprived can make them!

It's the FAA's responsibility to create workplace regulations that enable air traffic controllers to get the rest they need. This can include not just mandating reasonable time off between shifts, but also giving controllers breaks during shifts and allowing them to nap on their breaks. There are also some basic things that the controllers themselves -- or any shift workers -- can do to help avoid sleep deprivation:

Make sure to get adequate rest before a shift begins. Take a nap before work, if need be.

• Limit your reliance on caffeine. While it's okay as an occasional pick-me-up, coffee and caffeinated beverages are not substitutes for adequate sleep. And caffeine can interfere with your sleep when you actually want and need to be sleepy.

Keep a strong and consistent sleep routine both during your workdays and your days off. It's not always easy, but shift workers in particular need to build their off-duty schedules around making sure they get the sleep they need.

Similar to the recent changes in health care, the FAA is moving in the right direction to help its employees get the sleep they need to do their jobs safely. As this latest incident at Westchester Airport confirms, there is a great deal of work still to be done. And it's in everyone's best -- and safest -- interest that progress continues to be made.

Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™

Everything you do, you do better with a good night's sleep™
twitter: @thesleepdoctor

For more by Dr. Michael J. Breus, click here.

For more on sleep, click here.