Most Night Shift Workers Don't Adapt To The Hours

Numerous air traffic controllers who work the overnight shift have been caught sleeping on the job. Mary Louise Kelly talks to Dr. Charles Czeisler about the effects of sleep deprivation. Czeisler is the director of the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School and has studied the problem of fatigue on the job.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:

We've been following the numerous reports about air traffic controllers caught sleeping on the job. Controllers often work overnight shifts or rotate among many different shifts. The Federal Aviation Administration is now changing staff scheduling practices to address fatigue among controllers.

Charles Czeisler is the director of the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and he told me why workers like air traffic controllers have a hard time adjusting to night shifts.

D: People can become completely adapted to overnight work, but most do not, even if they work permanent night shifts. And the reason for that is that on their days off they typically flip back into trying to function during the daytime and sleeping at night. And...

LOUISE KELLY: On the weekends and that type thing.

D: Exactly. Moreover, they're living in a world in which the sun is up during the daytime and it's dark at night. And the light/dark cycle is the most powerful synchronizer of our internal biological clock. Now, it's possible to increase light intensity during nightshift work and use shorter wavelengths of light to help facilitate adaptation to working at night.

But nonetheless, most nightshift workers never fully adapt to their schedules, and hence it is more difficult for them to sustain alertness and performance when they're working at night.

LOUISE KELLY: You know, it's curious, because people in all kinds of professions face sleep deprivation, many of the people working essential jobs: police, firefighters, overnight doctors and nurses in the ER. Have other professions figured out a better way to do this, a better way to schedule people to work the night shift?

D: Well, that varies by profession. Certainly, the medical profession has not done so. They currently still schedule resident physicians to work 30-hour shifts twice a week. But change comes slowly in these areas, mainly because the environment has changed dramatically over the last 50 years, requiring people to stay continuously awake in jobs that they often were able to sleep at in times gone by, but the scheduling practices have not kept pace.

In addition, we are a sleep-deprived nation. Every week, nearly two million Americans nod off or fall asleep while driving their cars on the highways. And, you know, it's part of our 24/7 culture that we think that we should be able to burn the candle at both ends without suffering any consequences, and at some point, the brain seizes control and we involuntarily make the transition from wakefulness to sleep, even at very inappropriate circumstances.

LOUISE KELLY: One of the things that appears to have been ruled out in trying to tackle this is naps. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said this week, and I'm quoting him: "On my watch, controllers will not be paid to take naps." Is that a good approach? Could naps be helpful, in your view?

D: It's a very common approach, although it's kind of ironic. Controllers are allowed to eat while they're being paid. They are allowed to smoke cigarettes while they're being paid, during a break. But they're not allowed to do the one thing that would help prepare them for work when they're on break, which would be to take a brief nap.

LOUISE KELLY: And in your view, would that help?

D: Studies done by NASA for the FAA in relationship to pilots have shown that a brief, 20-minute nap greatly increases the ability to sustain alertness during the remainder of a flight. And yet, FAA regulations do not allow pilots to nap in the cockpit. So on one out of 10 trans-Atlantic flights, the pilots are nodding off in the cockpit, but it's not scheduled or controlled in any way. It would be far better to recognize that it's going to happen, to schedule it and to ensure that it doesn't happen at unscheduled times than to simply ban it and pretend that it's going to go away.

LOUISE KELLY: Charles Czeisler is director of the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Dr. Czeisler, thanks very much.

D: Thank you.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.