Aviation Never Sleeps

Health and Safety

Aviation Never Sleeps

Sleep deprivation causes more than sluggish employees-it impacts safety as well as the bottom line

By Michelle GaretsonBy Joan Bittel>

March 2002

247365. Winning lottery numbers? The tail number of the last aircraft out today? No, these numbers represent hours of availability in aviation, which means hours of availability in aviation ground support and ground handling services. While 24/7/365 offers convenience for customers, it can mean disruption and deprivation of necessary sleep for those who work within this "round the cloc" schedule. Individual sleep requirements vary, but there are many commonalities to consider and to understand in order to ensure one’s sleep needs are being met.

Circadian comes from the Latin words circa, meaning"about" and dia, which means"day" and it refers to bodily rhythms that demonstrate variations throughout the day. The human body naturally follows a 24-hour period of waking and sleeping that is regulated by an internal circadian clock. This "cloc" is linked to nature’s cycle of light and darkness and regulates cycles in body temperature, hormones, heart rate, and other body functions.

For humans, the desire to sleep is strongest between midnight and 6 a.m. When work shifts are scheduled during the night, the worker is fighting the natural wake-sleep pattern. It is difficult to reset the internal circadian clock, which is why night workers may find it hard to stay alert on the job and experience troubles in sleeping during the day, even though they are tired.

Sleep provides restoration and rejuvenation for the brain and organ systems. Chronic lack of sleep harms a person’s health, on-the-job safety, task performance, memory, and mood.

According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) in Washington, D.C., when people are sleep deprived, they think and move more slowly, make more mistakes, and have difficulty remembering things, which can lead to lower job productivity and may cause accidents.

NSF studies also show that shift/night workers experience more stomach problems (especially heartburn and indigestion), menstrual irregularities, colds, flu, and weight gain than day workers. Heart problems are more likely too, along with higher blood pressure. Health insurance claims as well as workers’ compensation submissions could rise as a result.

The risk of workplace and automobile accidents rises for tired shift workers, especially on the drive to and from work. If you operate heavy equipment or drive a vehicle during your shift, especially on an airport ramp, you must pay careful attention to signs of sleepiness. Yawning, frequent blinking, or a failure to make routine safety checks may put you and others at risk. If you feel drowsy, stop your work as soon as safely possible. Contact your supervisor and request a break, or have a caffeinated product in order to help increase alertness. Keep in mind that caffeine is only a short-term fix and should not be substituted for sleep.

Driving home after work can be risky for any shift. People think that opening the car windows or listening to the radio will keep them awake. However, studies show that these methods work for only a short period of time. Carpooling or taking public transport should be considered.

Here are a few ways to keep alert at work to stay safe and effective on the job.

  • Take short breaks throughout the shift.
  • Try to work with a"buddy" Talking with co-workers can help keep you alert and co-workers can be on the lookout for signs of drowsiness in each other.
  • Try to exercise during breaks. Use the employee lounge, take a walk, or climb stairs.
  • If you drink a caffeinated beverage (coffee, tea, colas), do so early in the shift — before 3 a.m. for the night worker.
  • Don’t leave the most tedious or boring tasks to the end of your shift when you are apt to feel the drowsiest. Night shift workers hit their lowest period around 4 a.m.

Implementing the following steps can make a difference in the workplace and on your bottom line.

  • Install bright lights in the work areas. A well-lit workplace signals the body that it is time to be awake and alert.
  • Provide vending machines with healthy food choices and a microwave oven.
  • Schedule shifts to allow sufficient breaks and days off, especially when workers are re-assigned to different shifts.

Since no two people are alike, each individual must determine how to achieve the most beneficial sleep patterns for themselves. Still, there are some common elements to consider when developing a sleep program.

Stress management is important for a successful sleep program. Working in aviation can provide some tense moments as can some home and family situations. If possible, try to resolve workplace tensions prior to leaving work. Your sleep will be disrupted if you allow your mind to process problems over and over. The same is true on the home front — settle squabbles before leaving for work, or make time for a family discussion when you return. For your safety, and the safety of others, do not focus your mind on problems unrelated to the task at hand.

Separating sleep activity from wake activity is necessary for proper slumber. Sleeping areas should be comfortable, quiet, dark, and free from distractions such as computers or televisions. Special considerations for night workers who live with day workers need to be ironed out before problems arise. Arrange to have a certain amount of hours where radios, televisions, telephones, and vacuum cleaners are turned off.

Sleeping room temperatures should be regulated to a cool setting. If you are restless or are experiencing disruptive dreams, it could mean that the room is too hot.

Diet can involve possible sleep deprivation ingredients. Three balanced meals per day is the best plan, but often is not achievable with those who are on-call 24/7. A little meal planning can help to avoid improper "fuelin" that can lead to heartburn or other illnesses. A heavy meal too close to bedtime interferes with sleep. Caffeine, a stimulant found in coffee, tea, colas, and chocolate, as well as in some medications, should be avoided some four to six hours before bedtime.

Alcohol may seem like it induces sleep, but it will be an unproductive sleep. As the alcohol is digested, your body goes into withdrawal, which leads to awakenings and sometimes, nightmares.

Smokers have an additional consideration in that nicotine is a stimulant and should be avoided before bedtime. Try to have fewer cigarettes during the four hours before bed and none in the 30 to 45 minutes before bed.

There will be times where sleep is elusive, or the 24/7/365 on-call lifestyle prohibits a good night’s or day’s rest. But, identifying problem areas and developing a good sleep regimen will help you stay sharp, safe, and healthy for both your employer and yourself.

For more information, contact: National Sleep Foundation
     1522 K Street, NW, Suite 500
     Washington, DC 20005 USA
     (202) 347-3471