Today, it’s air traffic controllers sleeping on the job. It could be worse. A few years ago, it was pilots who were falling asleep at the controls. If you’d like to revisit those frightening episodes and get some prevention advice on addressing workplace sleep-related problems, view our post on the high price of fatigue. The recent spate of well-publicized incidents might make it seem like this is a new problem, but Time logs a history of many such asleep-on-the-job incidents.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has responded with new measures, which include disciplinary action and termination of staff, adding a second controller on the late-night shift in 27 towers, and adding an additional hour between shifts. The FAA is also conducting further investigations. But on one matter, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood stands firm: “On my watch, controllers will not be paid to take naps. We’re not going to allow that.”

Air traffic controllers and pilots aren’t the only safety-sensitive jobs that work late night hours and convoluted shifts. How would you like to have your next surgery performed by a sleep-deprived physician?

While anyone who works a night shift can be subject to disruption of the body’s natural circadian rhythms causing fatigue, sleep-related hazards can be even greater with shift work when schedules rotate . Sleep experts call the resulting problems shift work sleep disorder (SWSD). Symptoms of SWSD include insomnia, excessive sleepiness, difficulty concentrating, headaches, lack of energy. Consequences include increased accidents, increased work-related errors, increased sick leave, increased irritability and mood problems. etc.

Numerous studies estimate the cost to business, but to appreciate the stakes, one need only glance at a handful of well-known accidents where sleeping on the job or sleep deprivation were cited as factors in follow-up investigations:
1986 Chernobyl nuclear explosion
1986 Space Shuttle Challenger explosion
1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska
1999 American Airlines crash in Little Rock, Arkansas
2003 Staten Island Ferry crash
2005 BP Oil Refinery Explosion

These are the high profile really scary end of the spectrum, but there are every day, pedestrian incidents that cause smaller tragedies every day. Some estimate that the fatality rate and injury severity level of motor vehicle crashes related to sleepiness are on par with alcohol-related crashes.

A systemic approach to problem prevention needed – but can power naps also help?
The problem of SWSD needs to be addressed with a multi-faceted approach: examining work schedules, shifts, work hours, and staffing; implementing a staff awareness and training program; building in backups and safety checks for late night workers; and addressing fatigue and sleep deprivation through wellness programs. The latter might include health assessments for medical conditions such as sleep apnea, which are known to cause drowsiness. And we are not so quick as Transportation Secretary LaHood to dismiss naps out of hand. We agree that unsanctioned napping should be disallowed – but some research has shown that napping can be beneficial to shift workers and many organizations are signing on to the benefits of power napping.

More resources
Standard addresses workplace fatigue
Fatigue Management – from EMS World
40 amazing facts about sleep
NASA napping studies
A guide to power napping


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