Shift mixing hurts air traffic controllers

April 27, 2011 at 1:03 AM
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TUCSON, April 27 (UPI) -- The problem with air traffic controllers falling asleep is not the amount of hours they work, it is irregular scheduling of shifts, a U.S. sleep expert says.

Dr. Richard Bootzin, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Arizona and director of the Insomnia Clinic at the University Medical Center, says air traffic controllers must have at least 8 hours of time between shifts, but the 8 hours may not be used for just sleeping -- commuting may play a larger role.

It is not uncommon for a controller to work from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m. and then report back to work at 11 p.m. to work the midnight shift until 7 a.m. the next morning, Bootzin said.

"The relatively short time between shifts puts pressure on people to sleep and there are consequences when people are overly sleepy or fatigued," Bootzin says in a statement. "This problem is not unique to air traffic controllers as many other occupations also involve around the clock shifts."

Bootzin says punishing air traffic controllers is not the solution, but it's necessary to make changes that will create a more conducive working environment.

Bootzin is scheduled to present his paper -- "If Sleep Is So Important, Why Do We Get So Little of It?" -- at the Association for Psychological Science's 23rd annual convention in Washington.

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