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Shiftworker Fatigue: Recent Sleeping-on-the-Job Incidents Highlight Risks

Recent incidents of air controllers sleeping on the job have prompted renewed concern about the role of fatigue in shiftwork inattention and accidents.

Several incidents involving air traffic controllers falling asleep on the job during late night shifts has prompted Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to announce new scheduling rules for controllers:

  • Controllers will now have a minimum of 9 hours off between shifts. Previously they may have had as few as 8 hours off.
  • Controllers will no longer be able to swap shifts unless they have a minimum of 9 hours off between the last shift they work and the one they want to begin.
  • Controllers will no longer be able to switch to an unscheduled midnight shift following a day off.
  • FAA managers will schedule their own shifts in a way to ensure greater coverage in the early morning and late night hours.

One of the incidents in the headlines that prompted the changes involved a controller who reportedly fell asleep while a medical flight carrying an ill patient was attempting to land. The controller was apparently out of communication for 16 minutes.

Such incidents are not only a problem in control towers, but in hospitals, factories, and other workplaces across the country where fatigue is a significant safety risk for all kinds of employees who work shifts.

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Fatigue a “Great Concern”

Commenting on the incidents, Federal Air Traffic Controllers Association president Paul Rinaldi said that the recent incidents are “of great concern.… The Administrator has made a smart move to prohibit scheduling practices that have been identified as those most likely to result in air traffic controller fatigue.”

“Research shows us that giving people the chance even for an additional hour of rest during critical periods in a schedule can improve work performance and reduce the potential for fatigue,” says FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt.

In past studies:

  • Over half of employees working late night or overnight shifts reported falling asleep on the job on a regular basis.
  • Almost two-thirds indicated that they had seen poor performance and operational errors by co-workers who were sleepy.
  • Over half reported witnessing lax safety practices or accidents caused by worker fatigue.

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Turning Time Upside Down

Why is fatigue such a problem for shiftworkers?

For most people, their body clocks, or circadian rhythms, tell them that daytime Is the time to be alert, awake, and productive. So it can be very difficult to adjust to a schedule that is the opposite of what the human body naturally wants to do, especially if the hours of  work keep changing, as they do for so many workers on rotating shifts.

This factor causes workers to be less likely to respond quickly and appropriately to emergencies. Shiftworkers fighting sleep may even lapse into a trancelike state called “automatic behavior syndrome,” in which their eyes are open, but they are not totally cognizant and alert.

Nightworkers report co-workers “not seeing” that bins are filling and machines are jammed. One even reported a sleepy co-worker walking into a wall!

NIOSH has developed recommendations to help employers minimize the risks of shiftwork fatigue and keep workers safe and alert on the job. We’ll look at those suggestions in tomorrow’s Advisor.

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