Saturday, April 16, 2011

Cat Naps on Break are Healthy

There have been a flurry of reports recently of Flight Controllers sleeping on the job; one in particular where a couple of airplanes full of passengers landed without assistance. Fox News website had yet another story today out of Miami :

"The Federal Aviation Administration is changing air traffic controllers' work schedules most likely to cause fatigue following another incident in which a controller fell asleep while on duty, this time at a radar center in Miami."

If the AP writer had any sense of humor the title could have been, "Sleepless in Miami". At the end of the article was a short paragraph which offers the answer and would save a considerable sum of investigative money:

"It has been known for decades that fatigue is rampant among controllers. FAA rules forbid any sleeping on the job, even during breaks. Employees who violate those rules can be fired. But controllers told The Associated Press that unsanctioned napping at night where one controller works two jobs while the other sleeps, and then they swap, is an open secret within the agency."

The simple answer would be to lighten up on the rules and permit worker to lawfully cat nap during breaks instead of threatening them with disciplinary action and/or suspensions. Plenty of scientific studies have been done, results checked and re-checked; when working night shift jobs the human body naturally gets sleepy, especially when the intensity of work dwindles down to pure boredom.

I'll tell on myself, having been a night shift police officer; almost every night I took a twenty minute nap when I called out for a meal break. I didn't need to eat; but those twenty minute naps made working all night bearable. This isn't to say it was within authorized policies of the Houston Police Department which had at the time, and likely continues to have a policy which strictly prohibits sleeping on duty.

My reasoning, call it rationalization if you must; what's the difference between calling out to eat for twenty or thirty minutes, something which is permitted and authorized; what's the difference between refueling an empty stomach and refueling a tired mind if they both can be accomplished in the same amount of time?

One night my supervisor heard me call out at a specific location and since I was on his "list" he checked to make sure I was actually there. He assumed I was at a place that served food, what's that old saying about assume, "making an ass out of u and me?" In fact I was across the street parked behind a warehouse taking my cat nap break.

He tried to make a big deal out of it; filed disciplinary paperwork claiming dishonesty for calling out at a fictitious address, sleeping on the job and being a regular pain in the butt; that last part may have been worded differently, you get the drift. I beat him on the dishonesty part since the two locations were in the same hundred block and the Department gave me an official warning about sleeping on duty, even if it was my allocated break.

It wouldn't have bothered me except this was the same supervisor who fell asleep in his patrol car stopped at a traffic light one night a while back. Several concerned citizens thought he was injured or had suffered a heart attack so the call went out as an "Assist the Officer". Upon arrival we figured out what happened and had a good laugh at his expense; funny how none of us considered filing an official complaint, what a hypocritical jerk!

There are a couple of ways to solve the problem of sleepy air traffic controllers, or for that matter any of a number of night shift employees falling asleep at an inopportune moments. I guess we could fire them for being human; but what would that accomplish?

No; the first would be to make sure these folks have at least one other person in close proximity to jostle them into full alert mode if needed. I would have enjoyed having a partner to share the dangers of being a night shift cop; but there weren't enough to go around. The other obvious solution would be to let employees take a cat nap for twenty minutes instead of loading up on carbohydrates which will almost certainly put them under. All in favor of letting folks take a cat nap raise their right paw.

This article has been cross posted to The Moral Liberal , a publication whose banner reads, “Defending The Judeo-Christian Ethic, Limited Government, & The American Constitution”.


Col. Hogan said...

Whnever we have night work I almost always volunteer. I enjoy the relative quiet at night, and have no trouble at all getting enough sleep during the day.

I'm hearing that in some cases controllers are required to work different shifts within the same week. No good. Pick guys who don't mind night work and let them work graveyard for weeks at a time.

Lucy Stern said...

Col Hogan, I never understood the mentality of having folks alternate from shift to shift. We did that in the Army and your body alarm clock never new when to relax, eat or sleep. It also screwed up your off time because you were either too tired to enjoy it or getting set for the next shift which was always too soon, not having had a chance to really unwind.

MK said...

You have a point, we don't want people falling asleep when there are planes full of people on the line here, but there's no point penalizing people if the reality is that they're sleeping anyway and causing dangerous situations.

Far better to have two for example and one sleeps every now and then.

MK said...

I've never had a job where sleeping on it would mean people died or anything, but in the past when i've had to work overnight because of problems and i'm just waiting around for something to complete, i'd go to sleep with the light on, for me that means i wake up every 15-20 min, and i'd keep the alarm on just in case too.