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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