In Defense Of Shiftworkers

The FAA has been getting hammered this last few weeks for their Air Traffic Controllers (ATCs) snoozing or being otherwise distracted on the night shifts. Seemingly daily another story surfaces concerning this problem. Issues like this of course grab headlines and the media hypes it, such that the average person sees it as an epic problem and we’re all gonna die, right? Wrong. But once it starts, any rational viewpoints fly out the window and idiots are instant ‘experts’. (Japan Earthquake-Nuclear Armageddon anyone?)

Here’s an asshole that only ever did a night shift sucking on a keg in his dorm. But that didn’t stop him from doing a hit-piece editorial on the issue. Was Sleepy of Seven Dwarfs Fame An Air Traffic Controller?

Note to the online editorial staff at the Manteca Bulletin: Check your style manual for Headline Caps rules. I corrected it on the link above. –Maybe they were sleeping on the job?

I really, REALLY see red having someone totally ignorant on a given issue coming off like this guy, Dennis Wyatt does in the article. But then again, when did having nary a clue about something ever stop left-coast liberals from proclaiming self-expertise?

Prior to these last few years, I’ve done some form of shift work my entire working lifetime. I also took part in a long-term study of the effects of shift work on humans, so I think I can speak with some authority on this issue.

The bottom line is that human beings are not physiologically wired for shift work. Period. Full-Stop. The study of Circadian Rhythms and Sleep Disorders proves this beyond any doubt. There is no such thing as being fully acclimated and alert working at 3 a.m. The industrial revolution and moving away from an agrarian society brought about 24 hour-a-day activity, it was thought that having the lights-on were all that was required to have workers perform as they would during the day. Historically, people were assigned to evening and night work without any consideration about how the shifts would affect their performance. Eventually, some consideration was given to shift work, especially rotating shift work and things such as rotation schedules were devised, but nothing can change a system that relies on flesh and blood to overcome inherent biological weaknesses. It just doesn’t work 100% of the time.

The problem for the most part is the government and industry mind-set that night work is the same as days, just a difference in what the clock reads. I was in the nuclear electric business and as you know, it’s regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. There was a major industry shakeup in 1987 when an operator at the Peach Bottom station was caught sleeping in the control room. The investigation determined that having one man snoozing at a given time routinely occurred and was an unstated, yet accepted practice. Learning this the NRC teed-off on the station and the industry. Unfortunately, the feds don’t take into account the extra operators on-shift, over and above the regulatory minimums.  Everybody is on-duty (even if they’re extra) and absolutely no sleeping/dozing/napping allowed. Moreover in the control rooms, radios, televisions, non-plant related reading material or even lousy muzak are banned. If you can think of something to help keep you awake on nights, it’s verboten, being considered a ‘distraction’.

In the wake of this incident the industry went through a torturous series of audits, reviews, re-training and at my station we brought in a team of Circadian Rhythm docs, to observe and make recommendations.

What would you think the biggest recommendation was? One that was totally unacceptable to the feds, the union and the company. Allowing one operator at a time to have a snooze break for about an hour. The concern with snoozes is that one might be groggy when waking up after the break. Bullshit. If I accept this, then sleeping prior to day shift work would be out too, I’m certainly groggy waking up at 6 a.m. or so, for a 7 a.m. shift. The idea of a nap-break touches on the ancient business paradigm that we’re damn well not paying anyone, anywhere to sleep on the job. So no real changes to how we deal with that night shift occurred, the union wouldn’t consider changing the shift rotations and the company of course, refused to institute a reasonable policy on rest-breaks. I can tell you, that during what we called “The Bone Zone” from 3-5 a.m. the urge to close your eyes is absolutely overwhelming. Even a 15-minute nap in the ‘zone’ would be immensely refreshing, but nooooo ! Personally, I see a vast difference between napping and sleeping. A nap is sitting in a chair, leaning back and closing your eyes for a bit. Sleeping is assuming the recumbent position, with a nice pillow and going all-the-way off to dreamland.

Considering this issue it’s important to understand that a nuclear plant has multiple, redundant systems. Thousands of parameters are monitored by instrumentation and pretty much any given abnormality will result in a number of alarms being audibly and visually produced, as well as automatic safety actions taking place. The machine is a LOT quicker to detect these than any human, regardless of their alertness, could ever hope to be. So in our case, having one operator away from the board results in an infinitesimal reduction in safety. The improved safety from letting an operator have a short nap, easily outweighs the reduction in safety on the other side of the equation.

This takes us to the FAA and the poor bastiches currently getting dog-piled.  Our friend, Wyatt up there, got his panties in a wad over one of the latest “incidents” where a controller brought and watched a DVD on the night shift. The ATCs, much like nuclear plant operators have safety critical jobs. Alertness actually on the job (as opposed to additional staff on-shift) is tremendously important with many lives on the line and like the nukes, they do have technological assistance to the human worker. The need for complete alertness is not in dispute, but the real question is how we go about ensuring they are alert? Would you rather have a controller alert and enjoying a movie or nodding-off? Does it make more sense to allow controllers to have short naps on the night shifts, away from the scope, than demanding they stay awake in the face of biological urges?   Wyatt seems to think the size of the paycheck should allow one to overcome biological facts. Of course in his case, I suspect he’s envious of those checks, compared to small town hack reporter’s salaries and using it to feel better by slamming the ATCs.

Yes, there is quite a bit that can be done to somewhat help the night shift attentiveness issue such as proper schedule rotations, diet, exercise etc. but they are only minor aids. As a veteran rotating shift worker, I can say that the only realistic way to keep alert for an entire night shift is to be able to have a cat-nap at sometime during the shift. Facilities with extra manpower could allow a rotation for rest breaks and for one-man facilities a floating extra could perform this function easily.

It’s high-time we stop this ridiculous expectation and demand that shift workers completely overcome physiology and be 100% alert on those long nights. They are human beings, not machines and the feds (as well as unions) need to be accept this and take an honest, realistic approach to the situation. Of course, some folks will always take advantage of that night shift with little or no supervision around, but to cast them all as derelict is wrong.

Stop the madness, let’s start looking at these guys as humans just working for a living, doing a tough job.

-Carry On

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wyseguy
wyseguy

As someone who has never done shift work, I certainly appreciate the insights provided here. If catching a cat nap for 15 minutes or so, or actually laying down for an hour is unacceptable, would getting up and moving around for 10 minutes or so help? By this, I mean actually getting up and leaving the location where you usually… Read more »

Cricket
Cricket

You know, even the trucking industry has HOS ‘rules.’ in the FMCSR. I would FAR rather an extra get a power nap on duty and be alert for his/her shift than to fight their fatigue just when they need to be most alert. I agree with that. The problem is, though, while the trucking industry does not fall under federal… Read more »

Cricket
Cricket

Okay…here is something I would like to add regarding Misha’s point about the ATCs and NRCs: They do a dangerous job, and they literally have millions of lives on the line. If you look at their safety record, it is stellar. No crashes have been attributed to ATCs or the lack thereof, so if someone knows different, let me know.… Read more »

SoCalOilMan, K.o.E.
SoCalOilMan, K.o.E.

wyseguy says: would getting up and moving around for 10 minutes or so help? By this, I mean actually getting up and leaving the location where you usually work to go outside for a breath or two of night air I would say no. I monitor an oil and gas sight and my duties require me to be moving, outdoors… Read more »

SoCalOilMan, K.o.E.
SoCalOilMan, K.o.E.

LC Jackboot IC/A says:

Good Point, however check the byline…… :em95:

Y’all look/sound the same. :em93:

I worked nights for 14 years. As a true night person I saw all sorts of others who just could not make it through the 3 AM to 5 AM time period. At those hours I am wide awake and ready to go however just try to get me to be alert at 8 AM. In my profession we were… Read more »

SoCalOilMan, K.o.E.
SoCalOilMan, K.o.E.

Library Czar says: It was my understanding that there was only one worker in these control towers at night. Why not two? If I’ve understood the scenario of these problems, is that there are only an occasional landing taking place during these hours. One person is underwhelmed with this work load, but, they have to be there for that outlier.… Read more »

Imperial Grammar Nazi, G.L.O.R
Imperial Grammar Nazi, G.L.O.R

We now have NASA in charge of global warming, since we eliminated the space program. Since we are funding them anyway, why not task them with designing some sort of sooper dooper computer system to help land planes, with only minimal assistance from a controller. Good grief. Computers pretty much got us to the moon and back several times, but… Read more »

Imperial Grammar Nazi, G.L.O.R
Imperial Grammar Nazi, G.L.O.R

Sorry…that should say, but they can’t land a plane…

LC MuscleDaddy
LC MuscleDaddy

OT, but I tripped over this site and have to know someone else is pissed off too…

You’re welcome.

– MD

LC ShadowFox
LC ShadowFox

Let’s put Gitmo detainees on the Dupont Shift Schedule and see how it would take groups to call it torture. For the first time they’d be right!

Imperial Grammar Nazi, G.L.O.R
Imperial Grammar Nazi, G.L.O.R

viscous animal,

Viscous animal? It’s fluid?

Just because you CAN have a blog, doesn’t mean you SHOULD (especially if you don’t know the difference between viscous and vicious.

LC Draco
LC Draco

Czar… The memory of the computers that put man on the moon. The computers that formed the basis of the Apollo Guidance and Navigation System (AGS) were at the bleeding edge of technology in the 1960s. They were the first to use the integrated circuit technology that subsequently gave us desktop computers and so many of the consumer electronic products… Read more »

LC Draco
LC Draco

Response to LC Draco @:

I meant BITCH SLAP!!!

LC Ogrrre - Imperial Heartless Bastard
LC Ogrrre - Imperial Heartless Bastard

Jackboot, I don’t know about now, but in the old PATCO days, an eight hour shift for an ATC was 2 hours on, 2 hours off, 2 hours on, 2 hours off. If that is/was true, then the ATC needs to nap, snooze, whatever, during the 2 hours he is off. IF that schedule was true, and still holds, there… Read more »

AyUaxe
AyUaxe

Response to LC Ogrrre @: I think Ogrrre is on the right track–it’s a problem of managing personnel and individual performance more than some institutional problem of fundamental incompatibility with human circadian rhythms. Our society has become horrifically slack on objective performance, in favor of a bunch of warm and fuzzy BS–this, incompetent public servants, employees (who virtually can’t be… Read more »

franklaughter
franklaughter

Jackboot’s points should be heeded notwithstanding the call for 2 or more people on duty at 3:00am. In the Korea War I was on duty in the company command bunker when the Regimental O.D. showed up in the wee hours. He didn’t tell me, but I figured he was on his way out to check our company Listening Post located… Read more »

Tallulah
Tallulah

OT: did you see this? US military burned Bibles in Afghanistan, but mandates that our soldiers handle the queeran with “reverence and respect”: Bibles were sent to U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. But the U.S. government determined that the presence of Bibles in this “devoutly Muslim country” might inflame the natives. So they burned them. Why did they burn them? Because… Read more »

Also, another perspective–we’re not all wired for day work either. I, for one, am naturally nocturnal. It’s a major struggle to get to sleep before dawn, wake up in the morning and get alert and productive on “everyone else’s schedule”. I do it because I have to, but I really do my best work after 6 pm. Didn’t you know… Read more »

Lady H
Lady H

Amen to this post. My mother worked a graveyard shift for a few years and never got used to it—confused her body so much, in my medical opinion, that she didn’t sleep very good for the rest of her life after that even when she retired for a while. You also have more of a propensity to eat more to… Read more »

LC TerribleTroy
LC TerribleTroy

Having worked a wide variety of shifts, I wholeheartedly agree that some shifts disagree with me and others are more intuitive (for lack of a better word) conducive. [Fixed it for you, Troy. “Conducive” seems to fit a little better. -Venomous] But be that as it may, I’m not so sure I want to remove any of the burden from… Read more »

VonZorch Imperial Researcher
VonZorch Imperial Researcher

Grammar Czar says: We now have NASA in charge of global warming, since we eliminated the space program. Since we are funding them anyway, why not task them with designing some sort of sooper dooper computer system to help land planes, with only minimal assistance from a controller. Good grief. Computers pretty much got us to the moon and back… Read more »

SoCalOilMan, K.o.E.
SoCalOilMan, K.o.E.

VonZorch Imperial Researcher says:

There’s no need to get NASA involved. The Navy already has one in use.

Back in the mid 80’s a frat bother (TDX) that piloted for Southwest showed me planes that from after takeoff until you were 30 feet from touchdown just basically flew themselves. I’m sure technology has progressed from there.

LC TerribleTroy
LC TerribleTroy

If Im not mistaken the majority of landings for larger aircraft operating under Instrument Flight Rules are at the very least computer assisted and with the exception of inclement weather conditions can easily be fully automated. I was also pretty sure that the Space Shuttle lands in full auto mode.

SoCalOilMan, K.o.E.
SoCalOilMan, K.o.E.

LC TerribleTroy says: I was also pretty sure that the Space Shuttle lands in full auto mode. They gave them a window. What else does the monkey…..pilot need? (I fully appreciate all pilots, civilian and military, they do what I only dream about. Technology has surpassed what the human body can withstand and next generation planes have governors to make… Read more »

Cricket
Cricket

@ LC Jackboot, IC/A

I forgot to add ‘do’ as in ‘They do do a dangerous job’, but knowing y’all, you would turn it into a joke about :em72:

:em93:

Off to watch Firelfy all over again.

Cricket
Cricket

A question here about computers and flight: Wasn’t an issue with the Airbus crashes the fact that a microchip couldn’t talk to the computer? I ask because what if there is a miscommunication by the computer, and the plane is ‘unable’ to land?

Jaybear, Colonel of Imperial Ancient Artillery
Jaybear, Colonel of Imperial Ancient Artillery

I worked graveyard three times in my life, once as a supermarket stocker, once as a night janitor in an electronics plant, and the last time as a midnight to six a.m. radio DJ right after college. I really had no problem adjusting to the time difference…..especially when I was doing the radio gig. I just packed a jug of… Read more »

LC LucysDaddy--Imperial Tire Warranty Expert
LC LucysDaddy--Imperial Tire Warranty Expert

I work from 6:30 PM to 6:30 AM (with an extra 45 minutes or so at the start for inventory) at a tire plant as a supervisor. I work Mon-Tues, off Wed-Thurs, work Fri-Sat-Sun, off Mon-Tues, work Wed, Thurs, off Fri-Sat-Sun. It is like this all year long. The first day back is always the killer one. I try to… Read more »

Imperial Grammar Nazi, G.L.O.R
Imperial Grammar Nazi, G.L.O.R

Response to Cricket @: Cricket, I wasn’t advocating a computer-only landing, but a computerized, atc-assisted landing, if possible. I don’t trust computers, at all, and I would never get on a plane that was run strictly by one. But, if we can get to the moon and back, all from the confines of the Johnson Space Center, and with a… Read more »

Imperial Grammar Nazi, G.L.O.R
Imperial Grammar Nazi, G.L.O.R

OT, but Anthony Watts has some good information of the new squiggly bulbs. They aren’t as innocuous as the lefties would like us to believe. I am stockpiling incandescents. I refuse to kowtow to the greenies and their “superior” intellect.

Cricket
Cricket

Thanks for the responses! I agree about keeping alert to land a plane or three. If I am not mistaken, the main problem with fatigue is being permanently short on sleep to the point where rousing one’s faculties wouldn’t be enough to prevent a disaster, even with mandated minimum hours off.

LC BOATS
LC BOATS

I’m retired now but for 33 years I worked a rotating swing shift at one week intervals — 8 to 4 –4 to midnight and midnight to 8am. Ive been retired since 03 and I still have trouble getting my sleep right. Even though I was always on my feet and there was plenty going on the midnight to 8… Read more »

LC Ohio Right Wing Nut
LC Ohio Right Wing Nut

LC LucysDaddy–Imperial Tire Provider says:

I work from 6:30 PM to 6:30 AM

:em69: :em69: You work…that’s the funniest joke I have heard all week :em69: :em69:

( Sorry Buddy just yankin your chain)

LC LucysDaddy--Imperial Tire Warranty Expert
LC LucysDaddy--Imperial Tire Warranty Expert

Response to Lc ORWN engine builder for Rottie Racing @:

Ok…ok…ok.

You are correct. Perhaps I should have said this.LC LucysDaddy–Imperial Tire Provider says:

I work show up and they pay me to be there from 6:30 PM to 6:30 AM

Better??? :em95: :em95: :em95:

LC Ohio Right Wing Nut
LC Ohio Right Wing Nut

Response to LC LucysDaddy–Imperial Tire Provider40 @:

MUCH… :em99:

The Lone Haranguer
The Lone Haranguer

I figured something was fishy about those controllers “sleeping on the job.” Even the trucking industry knows to run teams for long overnight trips, yet it seems OK to have a single controller on duty in the “wee hours.” I have little experience with this kind of work, but did work a couple of “graveyard” shifts at a gas station,… Read more »