How hard is it to assign controllers to regular shifts? Apparently, for “a busy regional radar facility that handles high altitude traffic for Florida, parts of the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean” it’s impossible. Another controller was discovered recently, sleeping at his panel. The FAA held a meeting about it recently. As quoted by Associated Press, ‘ Air controller Derek Bittman, who attended the meeting, said he has never slept at work. In a typical week, he works shifts starting at 3 p.m., 2 p.m., 8 a.m., 5:50 a.m. and 10 p.m. To perk himself up, he takes a break, gets a cup of coffee, walks a half-mile, and then drinks more coffee. “When people say, ‘I’m fatigued,’ I want them to understand why,” Bittman said.’
It’s simple: you cannot expect anyone to adjust his or her sleep-clock so radically in a single week. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, “Those who work night shifts are likely to become very tired on the job. They may feel a strong urge to take a nap. They also may not think clearly because of a reduced level of alertness. They are more likely to make mistakes.” They recommend that rotating shifts be scheduled “clockwise”, so that the next shift starts a little later than your last shift. If you worked 9am-5pm on Monday, you’d ask for the 8pm-4am shift on Tuesday. They also recommend 30-minute sleep breaks, or sleeping during lunch. They suggest, “Even a little sleep is better than none.”
The FAA is dead set against air traffic controllers sleeping on their shifts, and yet refuses to allow workers to reset their body clocks by assigning stable shifts. What they expect is inhuman. It’s time to either hire more controllers or rearrange the schedules.
This reporter is no stranger to working wild shifts. Three 13-hour shifts in the city (after a commute of 2.5 hours, one way) was the norm. I’ve also worked two full-time jobs, sleeping occasionally on a night shift when things were slow. A person can’t keep it up for long. Eventually, the body weakens, sickness sets in, and then time-off is needed to recover.
On the first night of a typical 13-hour overnight shift, I was always fine. I got home, went to bed, and slept my first 4 hours with relative ease. That evening, getting up to go to work was harder. A shower, more coffee, and more food was needed before working. Even so, the second night seemed to drag on forever. Upon arriving home, bed seemed the only interesting option. Waking on the third day was a problem. I often had to have my husband back-up my alarm clock. Coffee didn’t seem to help. Food just made me sleepy again. Digestive disorders started popping up; since my body couldn’t figure out when to shut down to process it. Mild hallucinations began setting in. “Elevator Syndrome” began popping up – that’s when the body tries to shut down for REM sleep suddenly, and the urge is fought. A feeling of a suddenly stopping elevator occurs – the result of sudden blood-pressure changes. It’s that feeling of “falling” that some people associate with “falling” asleep. Things begin to appear at the corners of one’s eyes – movements, things that are not there when looked at. Frequent nodding off is common. During the last shift anything goes: hopping up and down, running, more caffeine, loud music, bright light, insanely spicy food. Nothing seems to work for long. At the end of the shift, one’s senses are so dulled that one can only think about getting into bed. Limbs feel like lead, the body becomes sluggish, and each step becomes harder and harder. Once at home, I used to sleep for 12 hours in order to feel somewhat recovered.
If a young girl cannot survive this sort of punishment, how can an aging man be expected to do it? Perhaps he is a man with a family, with responsibilities outside work? How can he be expected to drag on forever? The FAA needs to take notice of the ever-expanding understanding of the human body and sleep-science, and get with the program. Let the controllers take naps. Let them have regular, carefully thought-out schedules, and when they say they are fatigued, let them go home.