Your pilot is falling asleep on the plane. Should you be worried? (3/21/12)
Sleepy, Sleep Pilots
A recent Sleep In America poll found that a quarter of pilots feel sleepy on the job. Another 60% nap on the job, and 20% feel they have made serious errors as a result of sleepiness.
Why Is This Happening?
Shift work. Similar problems occur with train drivers. Only about half of pilots get a decent night’s sleep on work nights, compared to about two-thirds of train drivers.
Is Anything Being Done About It?
The NTSB has recently extended the time between shifts so that pilots have more rest time between work assignments. However, despite calls to allow napping in the cockpit while co-pilots take over, as is allowed in Europe, no napping is allowed for American pilots.
About 20% of pilots surveyed said they napped three to five times a week – on the job.
What Is the Effect on Pilots’ Lives?
Pilots and train drivers have six times the car crashes commuting to and from work as workers in other fields. Shift work itself is associated with greater heart disease, stroke, depression, and a tendency to greater tumor formation. It also tends to cause weight gain.
Has Anyone Gotten Killed Due to Pilots Falling Asleep?
Yes. Most famous in the US is a Continental Connection flight to Buffalo in 2009 when 49 people died. Overall, however, flight safety in the United States – despite our cattle car approach to air transport and remarkably outdated air traffic system – has an excellent safety record.
Why Are There So Few Crashes?
Redundancy, protocols, and training. There are two pilots on most every flight. Pilots – generally in violation of regulations – allow each other to nap and remain sharp, avoiding the “sleep inertia” problem of getting back to acuity following sleep. There is someone else up there to fly the plane if something goes wrong.
The system is not foolproof. One SAS flight a couple of years ago between Stockholm and Copenhagen was complicated by a pilot falling asleep and locking the door. The co-pilot tried to get back after going to the bathroom. Despite anti-terror doorproofing, he finally managed to get back in the cockpit.
Are There Other Rest Problems Among Public and Emergency Shiftworkers?
Most shiftworkers fall asleep. Police do that frequently, as appeared in a recent Harvard study of North American police forces. Sleepy police made a lot of mistakes.
Moreover, shiftwork may produce a real problem for shiftworkers in terms of high sleep apnea rates.
In the example of the policemen study, several researchers, including Dr. Charles Czeisler, chief of sleep medicine at Harvard, lauded the Massachusetts State Police for demanding physical fitness tests each year. The State Police weighed less and complained of sleep problems far less frequently than other police forces.
Objective sleep testing provided a less laudatory story.
When Massachusetts State police were screened for sleep apnea, people screened to have and not have sleep apnea were studied. Among the police felt to not have apneas, fully 47% had more than 10 stopped breathing episodes each hour. In other words, in the healthiest group of police, in a subgroup further screened to not have sleep problems, almost half had 10 apneas an hour. Sleep apnea is diagnosed when people have just 5 or more apneas per hour.
Should I Be Worried About Sleepy Transport Workers?
Certainly. Rules should be changed so transport workers can nap under controlled conditions where others are performing their job. Works need to restore and refresh themselves so as to be able to work in the wee hours of the morning when humans are meant to be asleep. This should result both in less accident, and better health for shift workers.
Yet the general population also suffers from sleep problems producing transport disasters. Many thousands of people die or are maimed in transport accidents each year – as drivers, passengers, bikers or pedestrians – due to excess sleepiness. The bigger public health problem probably is occurring with the sleep deprived general population. Pilots and truck drivers are professional who may be more capable of catching themselves driving or piloting poorly than average folk.
What Can Be Done to Make People Less Sleepy?
Consider the recent words of Lynn Parramore, a writer who had some understanding of the importance of rest:
“As we learn more, we may realize that giving sleep and rest the center stage in our lives may be as fundamental to our well-being as the way we eat and the medicines that cure us. And if we come to treasure this time of splendid relaxation, we may have much more to offer in the daytime hours.”
Remember, rest is necessary to survival. We need rest to regenerate our bodies in order to live.
Sleep is as necessary to life as food.
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