A letter from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) sheds light on how sleep deprivation affects the job performance of air traffic controllers and other shift workers.
The letter describes four instances since 2001 when an air traffic controller made a serious mistake on the job. In each case the controller had not gotten enough sleep and was feeling tired. These two types of errors were common:
- Forgetting important information
- Failing to pay close attention to runways and displays
Research shows that air traffic controllers often fail to get enough sleep. They only get an average of 2.3 hours of sleep before a “midnight shift.” This is a shift in which most of the hours worked are between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m.
The NTSB identified three factors that play key roles in this sleep loss:
Air traffic controllers often work shifts that keep them from being able to sleep well. “Rapidly rotating” shifts are one problem. These shifts have work times that change drastically from one day to the next. This prevents the body from adapting to a new schedule.
The use of “counterclockwise schedules” is another problem. The worker rotates to a shift that starts earlier than his or her last shift. This opposes the body’s natural sleep-wake rhythm. The body adapts better when a person rotates to a new shift that has a later start time.
Short Rest Periods
Air traffic controllers often have only eight or nine hours between shifts. After work they need time to drive home, eat and take care of other personal needs. This leaves too little time for them to get the seven to eight hours of sleep that most adults need. It is even harder for a shift worker who has to try to sleep during daytime hours.
Shift workers must make it a priority to get enough sleep. Often they spend too much time doing other things. Then they only have a few hours to sleep before starting their next shift.
The NTSB letter was dated April 10, 2007. It was sent to the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Air Traffic Controller Association.
View the NTSB letter online.
View the American Academy of Sleep Medicine’s Sleep Tips for Shift Workers.
Reviewed by S. Ijlal Babar, MD, FCCP
Updated June 4, 2007