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Sleepy Pilots, Train and Truck Operators Endanger Your Life

Sleepy pilots, other transportation operators can endanger lives

If you have trouble sleeping, the results of a new study from the National Sleep Foundation might keep you up at night. A poll found that about one-quarter of pilots (23%) and train operators (26%) say being sleepy has an impact on their job performance at least once a week, which could endanger your life.

20% of pilots admit making serious errors

Before you board an airplane, wouldn’t you like to know that the pilots have had enough sleep? When you step onto a train or take a taxi, would it bother you to know that the train operator or taxi driver might be sleep deprived?

The answers to these and similar questions are likely “yes.” Now the new 2012 Sleep in America poll, the first to question transportation professionals about their sleep habits and their impact on their work performance, has provided the public with answers to these inquiries, and you may find them unnerving. Among them:

  • 20% of pilots say they have made a serious error because of sleepiness
  • 18% of train operators and 14% of truck drivers admit they have had a “near miss” because they were sleepy
  • Most train operators (57%), half (50%) of pilots, and 44% of truck drivers said they rarely or never get enough sleep on work nights. This compared with 42% of non-transportation workers
  • The best rested transportation drivers appear to be bus, taxi, and limo drivers, of whom 29% said they rarely or never got a good night’s sleep on work nights
  • Sleepy pilots and train operators also are significantly more likely than non-transportation workers (6% each vs 1%) to be involved in a car accident because of sleepiness while commuting
  • Sleepy transportation workers report about three times more job performance difficulties and average about 45 minutes less sleep per night than their non-sleepy peers

Work schedules can contribute to sleepiness
Many of the transportation workers who participated in the poll said their work schedules contributed to their sleepiness. Compared with non-transportation workers (27%), 44% of train operators and 37% of pilots said their current work schedule did not allow them enough time for sleep.

Work schedules fluctuated a great deal for transportation workers. Only 6% of pilots and 47% of train operators said they had the same work schedule each day, compared with 76% of non-transportation workers.

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Pilots and other transportation workers are not the only workers who have sleep problems associated with shift work. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association looked at the impact of sleep disorders among police officers, who often work different shifts.

The study found that 40% of police officers had a sleep disorder, which was associated with an increased risk of errors on the job, unintended injuries, and motor vehicle crashes. According to the study’s authors, “It has been hypothesized that fatigue—likely due to reduced duration and quality of sleep and untreated sleep disorders—may plan an important role in police officer unintentional injuries and fatalities.”

Doctors are also among the professionals whose performance can waver when they are sleep deprived. The Canadian Medical Association Journal recently published a study noting that sleepiness can result in higher rates of surgical complications if a surgeon has not had enough sleep.

According to Patrick Sherry, PhD, a sleep researcher and professor at the University of Denver Intermodal Transportation Institute, because transportation workers have variable work schedules and time off between shifts, “this makes it difficult for such workers to maintain regular sleep/wake schedules, which can, in turn, make it difficult for these workers to maintain alertness on the job.”

Sherry encouraged employers to “put more effort into designing work/rest schedules that facilitate sleep and minimize workers exposure to irregular, variable schedule changes.” Until these and other measures are taken, you and the general public are exposed to sleepy pilots, train operators, and other transportation workers who can endanger your life.

MacDonald N et al. Working while sleep-deprived: not just a problem for residents. Canadian Medical Association Journal 2011; doi10.1503/cmaj.110402
National Sleep Foundation poll
Rajaratnam SMW et al. Sleep disorders, health and safety in police officers. JAMA 2011; 306(23): 2567

Image: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons