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Safety official says naps on job could benefit air-traffic workers

Suggests policy should change to fight fatigue

The FAA has disclosed at least five cases of controllers falling asleep, and officials have taken a hard line on the issue. The FAA has disclosed at least five cases of controllers falling asleep, and officials have taken a hard line on the issue. (Cliff Owen/ Associated Press/ File 2011)
By Joan Lowy
Associated Press / April 26, 2011

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WASHINGTON — On-the-job naps should be considered as part of a plan to address fatigue by air traffic controllers, airline pilots, and others who work overnight shifts, a National Transportation Safety Board member said yesterday.

Many scientific studies have shown that short naps of 20 to 30 minutes refresh workers suffering fatigue and help them remain alert when they return to their duties, said Mark Rosekind, an NTSB member.

Rosekind is an internationally recognized researcher on fatigue who formerly worked for NASA and directed a sleep research center at Stanford University.

“It should be on the table for consideration,’’ Rosekind told reporters at briefing on prevalence of fatigue among transportation workers.

Since late March the Federal Aviation Administration has disclosed at least five cases of controllers falling asleep on the job. In two cases, the controllers were fired.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union for the FAA’s 15,700 controllers, is pressing the agency to allow naps during overnight shifts and during the 20 to 30 minute breaks controllers typically receive every few hours during day shifts. The FAA’s long-standing practice has been to forbid sleeping on the job, even on breaks.

An FAA-union working group on fatigue among controllers recommended earlier this year that sleeping be allowed during daytime breaks and in prearranged conditions on overnight shifts when there is another controller to handle the duties of the napping controller.

FAA officials have said the recommendations are being reviewed. An agency spokeswoman had no comment on Rosekind’s remarks.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt have said flatly that they won’t sanction on-the-job naps.

“We don’t pay people to sleep at work at the FAA,’’ Babbitt said.

Over the past four decades, the NTSB has made 190 safety recommendations related to fatigue in all modes of transportation, Rosekind said. There have been five aviation accidents or incidents in which investigators established controllers were suffering from fatigue.

“What is it going to take to get these recommendations enacted?’’ he said.

Rosekind credited the FAA under Babbitt for proposing the first major overhaul in decades of regulations aimed at preventing fatigue among airline pilots.

However, he noted the proposal doesn’t include “controlled napping’’ by pilots even though FAA-funded research recommended such napping two decades ago. The agency went so far as to draft an advisory to airlines in the mid-1990s that would have allowed them to permit brief naps by one pilot at a time during the flight when the workload is light. But then the recommendation was dropped.

Airlines are required to have at least two pilots in the cockpit.

More recently, the FAA drafted, and then set aside, a proposal that would have allowed sleep breaks by controllers during work shifts, according to a 2009 Department of Transportation inspector general’s study.

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