The FAA has announced new duty time rules that, among other things, will ensure controllers get at least 9 hours of rest between shifts as opposed to 8 hours. While this is, in principle, a step in the right direction, it's not what experts recommend. Sleep researchers have a simple solution - allow workers to take naps during their shift. For his part, LaHood has dug in his heels and said that controllers will not be "paid to sleep." This is a curious stance.
Sleep researchers tell us that on average, Americans are getting under just 7 hours of sleep per weeknight. While there is a small percentage of the population that can function well on 5 hours or less of sleep per night, researchers believe this is a genetic trait and not a matter of adaptation. Most of us need 8 hours to function at our best and all folks those getting 7 hours of sleep go through their days with measurable decreases in ability to concentrate and reduced reaction time. The thing is, a person under the influence of sleep deprivation is likely to think that everything is just fine even though their cognitive skills are impaired.
Let's not pick on just Secretary LaHood and Administrator Babbitt because most of the country is in denial about sleep. Sleep deprivation is worn by many as a sort of badge of honor from medical residents and interns to commercial pilots. The difference would seem to be that hospitals, maritime sailors, fire departments, medivac crews, even a few international airlines allow employees to take a nap or sleep during their shifts. A pilot who flew for an air ambulance company once told me that EMS actually stands for "Earn Money Sleeping." So why should the FAA be any different if the research shows an improvement in job performance on a graveyard shift comes from simply taking a nap?
The health consequences and the associated health care costs of long-term sleep deprivation and circadian rhythm disruption are well-documented: Hypertension, weight gain, cardio-vascular disease, diabetes, increased risk of "sudden death," and shorter lifespan. My personal experience? Four days after I quit my freight-flying job I woke up feeling great, but with the sobering realization that I had been impaired by sleep disruption for months without fully realizing it.
As Phil Zimbardo once observed, you'll never get to the bottom of a dysfunctional organization unless you first go to the top. There may be an explanation for the loss of objectivity when someone is short on sleep, but it's hard to support LaHood's hard-line stance against napping. The Roman Empire's punishment for sleeping on duty may have been death, but we live in more informed, and scientifically enlightened times. Perhaps Secretary LaHood should sit down, read the research, and sleep on it.