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When your air traffic controller falls asleep (3/30/11)

March 30, 2011

Sleep and Security

Pilots fall asleep flying.  Drivers fall asleep driving. Nuclear plant operators fall asleep manipulating spent fuel rods. Air traffic controllers fall asleep while planes keep flying…

Last week the air traffic controller for Ronald Reagen, formerly National Airport, fell asleep. He was controlling traffic at the Washington D.C. airport that is a hop, skip and a jump from the Pentagon and the White House. It remains the preferred airport for Congress.

Two planes could not come in.  They called and kept calling.  Finally a traffic controller nearby told them the tower “appeared to be closed.”  They should land as if at an uncontrolled airport.

Both planes landed safely.   But the incident tells you a lot about security and shift work in the 21st century – and some things we need to do soon.

Why Did the Controller Fall Asleep?

A 20 year veteran, it was his fourth night shift in a row, working 10 P.M. to 6 A.M.  No one else is on duty at night.  He was swiftly suspended from his job.

Does This Often Happen During Shift Work?

More than people know.  Torbjorn Akerstedt showed over 10% of train drivers in Sweden were falling asleep driving their trains – often with their eyes still open, so they appeared awake.  Many pilots fall asleep in the air, including the SAS pilot who locked the cockpit on the Copenhagen-Stockholm flight (see my “Who’s Flying Your Plane? of     )

What Happens to Shift Workers?

Night shift workers have more cardiovascular disease, particularly heart attacks; more tumors; more GI disease; higher weights, and evidence of more tumors.  Humans are not well adapted to shift work. We’re built to sleep at night.  Worse, shift workers generally live a “day life” with their families, leaving many feeling always tired.

Why Do People do Shift Work?

We’re a 24 hour society.  We expect things to work around the clock – especially in a period of economic globalization.  Shift work is always necessary for any emergency services, and is sometimes a more “efficient” use of capital – if you paid lots of money for equipment and machinery, you generally want to use it rather than letting it lay idle at night.

Many people can’t find work these days, so they quickly take shift working jobs.    Often the night shift pays more, an added incentive.  And some people like working alone, more common in shifts.

What Can Mitigate Shift Work?

The LENS program – light, exercise, naps, and socialization.  All four elements keep people up at night (see my “Body Clock Advantage” book for more details.) It also helps when shift workers possess very protected environments for sleep once they get home.

What Can We Do For Air Traffic Controllers?

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood is already putting in place plans to have 2 air traffic controllers on at night at most fair sized airports; an added controller was put to work at Reagen Airport immediately.

What Does This Say About National Security?

Security will always have holes – people fall asleep at night.  That includes emergency workers of all kinds as well as soldiers and security personnel.  Redundancy in terms of added workers and frequent social connections and exercise and other means to keep people awake are needed if you want them to remain even moderately sharp during shifts.

What Would Reagen Think?

One of Reagen’s most prominent actions was to decertify the Air Traffic Controllers Union (PATCO) early in his administration.  PATCO had supported him rather than Carter in the presidential election, but then went on strike.  Reagen broke the strike, and all controllers who refused to go back to work were forbidden work as traffic controllers (Clinton rescinded this order in 1993.)

Unions have consistently lost ground since.  Yet one wonders how Reagen would have felt about having a single air traffic controller on at night for one of the nation’s more important airports.

It should also make you wonder about recent budget plans to get rid of more Federal jobs.

It’s not just your computer that needs back up.  People need back-up, too – especially at night.

Rest, sleep, Sarasota Sleep Doctor, well-being, regeneration, longevity, body clocks, insomnia, sleep disorders, the rest doctor, matthew edlund, the power of rest, the body clock, psychology today, huffington post, redbook, longboat key news

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