If an emergency dispatcher in Maine were found nodding off on the job, he or she would be summarily fired. The same goes for countless other jobs: the anesthesiologist in surgery, the oil tanker captain, the truck driver. And, of course, air traffic controllers.
The air travel industry, and the federal agency that oversees it, are working diligently to address the shocking news revealed last month that four air traffic controllers were caught napping while working.
Certainly “asleep at the switch” workers should be disciplined, if not fired, but a closer examination of the problem by The Associated Press found a familiar culprit: sleep deprivation. In addition, the nature of the job — sitting in a dark room waiting for long spells for pilots to contact them by radio — is conducive to nodding off. But often, it seems, the controllers are set up for failure by being called into work without having had adequate rest. At one airport site, cots were seen in the work area, testifying to the need to rest between calls from pilots.
Controllers often rotate shifts, so they work nights one week and mornings another. That sort of schedule is brutal on the body and mind, not to mention family life. Some law enforcement agencies in Maine have adopted this arrangement, which may result in police officers nodding off as they sit in their cruisers, watching for speeders. State police officers work long schedules, though it’s better than it was several years ago, when troopers were on 24-hour shifts (they could be home sleeping, but were subject to being called out).
And some air traffic controllers work several eight-hour shifts, with just eight hours off between work days or nights. That, too, is a recipe for tired, potentially judgment-impaired workers.
An example often raised in the discussion on sleepy workers is that of physicians completing their hospital internships and residency requirements. Twelve-hour shifts are common. And it may happen to pilots, too. A survey revealed that half of airline pilots admitted to nodding off for at least a few moments at times in their career.
The Federal Aviation Administration has ordered that a second controller be put on duty during night shifts at 26 airports. “We take our responsibilities very seriously and believe staffing levels and fatigue are at the root of the problem,” the president of the Air Traffic Controllers Association, Paul Rinaldi, said.
As with much of the work we expect of our public servants, the quality comes down to money. Shorter shifts, more breaks and more staff would reduce the risk of sleep-related incidents, but coming up with the funds to do so is a difficult sell.