MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
So it's not surprising people were outraged when they found out that air traffic controllers fall asleep on the job. But working the overnight shift is tough, as NPR's Joe Palca explains.
JOE PALCA: Humans are not nocturnal, but modern society demands some people work at night. So is there anything you can do to be certain that people will stay awake during the graveyard shift?
TORBJORN AKERSTEDT: I usually say no when I get that question.
PALCA: Torbjorn Akerstedt is a sleep researcher at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.
AKERSTEDT: Night work is un-physiological. You can never make it as good as day work.
PALCA: What Akerstedt means by un-physiological is our bodies have an internal clock that's designed to keep us alert during the day and asleep at night. And that clock is set by the time the sun rises and sets. So any kind of night work is tough, but...
AKERSTEDT: There are several varieties of night work that are worse than other types.
PALCA: Such as?
AKERSTEDT: Well, if you have very short rest periods between shifts.
PALCA: That's because getting enough sleep before a night shift starts is important for staying up. But there's a problem.
TOM ROTH: If I give you 12 hours of sleep by day, you're still going to be impaired at 2:00 in the morning because your clock doesn't adjust.
PALCA: But Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has apparently ruled that out for air traffic controllers. Here's LaHood on Fox News Sunday.
RAY L: On my watch, controllers will not be paid to take naps.
PALCA: LaHood says the government's plan is to give controllers an extra hour off between shifts. Tom Roth is not convinced that's the way to go.
ROTH: I would rather see that hour of extra sleep at two to four in the morning, when the person is really impaired in that tower.
PALCA: You can shift your internal clock artificially, with bright lights at night and dark curtains during the day, but it's tough and hard to maintain. It's also true that some people can handle jet lag or night shift work more easily than others.
MAURICE OHAYON: You have people that are short sleepers, people that are long sleeper.
PALCA: But Ohayon says everyone will experience times when they get sleepy in the middle of the night.
OHAYON: Here is the biggest problem. We know that sleepiness is something that is taking you by surprise. You don't know when are passing from sleepiness to sleep.
PALCA: In other words, if you become excessively sleepy, you can fall asleep and not realize it.
OHAYON: You are always at risk to have a big period of excessive sleepiness. The sleep can come at any moment. The danger is there.
PALCA: So if you're always at risk for this, why don't we see more accidents or near misses in people who are doing critical jobs in the middle of the night?
OHAYON: We are lucky.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
PALCA: Joe Palca, NPR News, Washington.
NORRIS: And NPR wants to hear from you. Do you work the night shift? How do you cope? Let us know on the NPR Facebook page.
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