Sleeping On the Job: What's Up With Air Traffic Controllers?

Air Traffic Controllers Admit it -- if you haven't nodded off at work before, you've at least stifled a yawn, or experienced droopy eyelids. The difference between you and an air traffic controller, however, is that you probably didn't hold thousands of lives in your hands when your drowsiness nodded its ugly head.

There has been a rash of reports of air traffic controllers falling asleep on the job lately, from Miami to Knoxville to Washington, D.C., and changes have been instigated that include an extra hour between shifts and more managers on hand during late night and early morning shifts. The new rules would also prohibit air traffic controllers from switching shifts without the mandatory nine-hour rest period.

This will help, but it is not enough, says Dr. Richard Bootzin, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Arizona who also serves as director of the Insomnia Clinic at the University Medical Center. As he explains, "The relatively short time between shifts puts pressure on people to sleep and there are consequences." According to Bootzin, the length of their shifts is not necessarily the problem; instead it is the irregular shifts that lead to extreme fatigue.

Though the Federal Aviation Administration requires air traffic controllers to have at least eight hours of time between shifts, the controllers may not be able to use these eight hours solely for sleep. It is not uncommon for a controller to work from 7AM until 3PM, then report back to work at 11PM to work the midnight shift until 7AM the next morning.

If you're not on a regular sleep schedule, it's nearly impossible to get eight hours of sleep -- or even six hours of sleep, between shifts. You try getting six hours of sleep in the late afternoon one day, and in the early morning the next. Air traffic controllers often can't predict if they'll be sleeping in daylight or at night, so regular sleep patterns are tough to set.

Bootzin believes that the solution is not to punish air traffic controllers, but to make changes that will create a more conducive working environment. In his paper, "If Sleep Is So Important, Why Do We Get So Little of It?...,", he suggests that sleep, or lack thereof, can affect anyone's job, not just air traffic controllers'. If you don't get the right amount of sleep for you, you will pay on the job -- that's all there is to it. Everyone's metabolisms are different, of course, but the important thing is to figure out what's right for you and stick to it.

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