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Published: Sunday, 4/24/2011

Sleep on it

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says air traffic controllers aren’t going to sleep on the job on his watch. Good to know. But what if sleep — or at least a nap — would reduce the possibility of controllers falling asleep at their screens and increase air safety?

In recent weeks, several controllers were found to have nodded off, or gone to sleep on purpose, while on duty. It’s not a common occurrence, but sleeping on the job “has always been a problem,” former controller Rick Perl told the Huffington Post Web site. It happens most frequently on overnight shifts, but is not unknown during the daytime.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s response was to add a second controller at more than 20 airport towers that previously had only one person directing air traffic on the midnight shift. The agency also mandated that controllers must have at least nine hours off between shifts, an increase of one hour.

Although these changes are welcome, they don’t address the core issue. A large body of evidence suggests that working the graveyard shift is bad for your health. It causes hormonal changes and can increase the risks of heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.

Harvard University sleep specialist Charles Czeisler told National Public Radio that it is hard for humans to adjust to sleeping during the day and being awake at night. Natural body rhythms persist that prepare the body for sleep when the sun goes down.

People who work nights often try to flip their sleep schedule on days off, because most of the world works during the day.

The result, Dr. Czeisler said, is that “at some point, the brain seizes control and we involuntarily make the transition from wakefulness to sleep — even [under] very inappropriate circumstances.”

Air traffic controllers don’t have to wait for days off to upset their sleep patterns. They are routinely scheduled to switch among day, night, and swing shifts. Sometimes they’re scheduled to complete five eight-hour shifts in four days. No wonder they fall asleep on the job.

None of this is new to the FAA. Controllers who sleep on the job — sometimes on purpose — have been an open secret for more than a decade. A recent study by the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers union confirmed what officials already knew: Controllers who switch back and forth among day, night, and swing shifts can end up sleep-deprived.

Police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical personnel get paid to sleep, so that when they’re needed they will be at peak efficiency. Instead of firing drowsy workers, as Mr. LaHood did to two employees last week, the United States should follow the lead of countries such as Japan and Germany.

They schedule on-the-job nap-time for air traffic controllers, and even provide a sleep room. If the FAA did that, U.S. air travelers could sleep a little better too.

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