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Air Traffic Controllers and Sleep

It appears that the FAA had some sense of the dangers of leaving one sleepy person in charge of all inbound and outbound flights by their decision to put two controllers on duty during the midnight shift. Inexplicably, having only the single controller was recently reinstated after the FAA implemented “new procedures.”

So what are the solutions? Since we cannot stem the tide of our 24-hour culture, there are some important standards that should be adhered to by employers and employees:

Employers need to keep a uniform work schedule for each employee, and avoid jumping from working day and night shifts across weeks.

Employees need to make a decision about their schedule and stick to it. That means keeping a reliable schedule on and off work. They must avoid extended work hours, including overtime. Shift workers have a hard enough time staying awake through a single shift. Think of the consequences of longer periods at the helm. We should never work more than four night shifts in a row and have at least 48 hours of recovery between shifts.

Finally, nap before every night shift. Studies have shown that prophylactic napping helps people perform better and for longer duration than napping during work hours, or worst of all, at the end of a shift, when mistakes already have been made.

You know the key to health: Eat right, get some exercise and get some rest. As a nation, we are overweight, out of shape and tired. We must include sleep health in our overall approach to well-being at home and in the workplace.

Sara Mednick  – Assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego.

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