Recent Newspaper & Online Columns by Kate Scannell MD

Sleep deprivation is a wake-up call in the air and on the ground

May 15, 2011

Tags: sleep deprivation, medical error, pilot error, patient safety, fatigue, Scannell

By Dr. Kate Scannell, Syndicated Columnist
First Published in Print: 05/15/2011

FOR WEEKS, we've been reading about air traffic controllers falling asleep on the job. In one case, an airborne ambulance transporting a sick patient had to circle a Nevada airport for 16 minutes while the controller snoozed. In March, two jetliners inbound for Reagan National Airport were forced to land without clearance while the air controller slept.

In response to such disturbing incidents, the office of fatigue risk management at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been collaborating with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association to identify and remedy conditions fostering controller fatigue. While not an expert at such matters, I have a (grounded) hunch these agencies will discover that 99.3 percent of human beings who sit alone within a tower, staring out for hours at a yawning night sky, working irregularly staggered shifts -- will tend to feel a little sleepy.

So far, the FAA has recommended a minimum nine-hour break between controller shifts, and at least one additional buddy present on overnight shifts at 27 airports that had previously maintained only one controller.

On the runway of public opinion about aviation safety, concerns about pilot fatigue immediately preceded our current focus on air traffic controllers. An ABC News investigative report in February claimed that "despite denials from the airline industry, large numbers of pilots report to duty every day after getting only a few hours of what fatigue experts call 'destructive sleep' in crowded crew lounges and so-called 'crash pads'." More than two dozen accidents and 250 fatalities in the U.S. had been linked to pilot fatigue in the past 20 years.

Public anxiety associated with air traffic controller or pilot fatigue is soaring high, partly fueled by post-9/11 insecurities regarding flying in general. But the reality is that fatigue-related safety hazards loom even larger on the ground. Whether referring to ourselves or to others within our daily lives, being sleepless IN Seattle might be riskier overall than being sleepless over it. (more…)

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