Sleepy Air Traffic Controller: Was Shift Work to Blame?

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Jim Hejl / Flickr via Getty Images

By now, you’ve heard about the air-traffic control supervisor who fell asleep on the job at Washington’s Reagan National Airport early Wednesday morning, forcing two small passenger jets to land without guidance from the tower.

The immediate reaction was shock, of course — how could the controller fall asleep? Was he on drugs? And how come the air-traffic control tower was manned by a single person, with no backup?

The latest on the situation, as the Washington Post reported:

FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt suspended the veteran controller supervisor on Thursday, saying he was “personally outraged” after two planes carrying a total of 165 people landed without help from the control tower.

The National Transportation Safety Board on Thursday initiated a formal investigation into the incident, and the House Transportation Committee planned to conduct a formal review.

The Federal Aviation Administration hasn’t confirmed reports that the controller underwent a drug test, but for now, there is another factor to consider: the veteran employee, who has worked in air traffic control since 1990, was on his fourth consecutive night shift when he fell asleep.

Night work is particularly exhausting, as shift work goes, because it is incompatible with the schedules of everyone else in the community. Although night-shift workers can technically draw the shades and sleep as much as their day-shift counterparts, that’s hard to do, given the daytime demands of family, friends and all manner of personal responsibilities.

Also, shift work tends to be unpredictable in nature. Some weeks people may be working at night, other weeks during the day, and the irregularity leads to lost sleep and increased risk of inappropriate drowsiness. “Rotating shift work is the worst case scenario,” says Dr. Yong Zhu, an endocrinologist at Yale University who is studying the health impact of long-term shift work. “But fixed shift work, where it’s the same time every day is still disruptive.”

It’s not something that people get accustomed to either. “One person may have the experience of many years of overnight shift work, but they can’t ever adapt to it,” says Zhu.

Shift work disrupts the body’s natural circadian rhythm, which plays an important role in regulating levels of hormones. That affects not only how long or well people sleep in the short term, but it can also lead to health problems down the line, including cancer. A 2010 study of female shift workers found that those who worked overnight were 50% more likely to receive a breast cancer diagnosis than those who worked during the day. “There is very solid evidence showing that shift work disrupts circadian rhythms, and that has an effect on tumor genesis, heart disease and other conditions,” says Zhu, who led the breast cancer study and is now researching whether long-term shift work cause changes in the expression of genes that control circadian rhythm.

The effect of shift work is so well known that in 2007, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the cancer arm of the World Health Organization, added overnight shift work to its list of “probable” carcinogens (others include diesel exhaust and UV radiation). And in several countries, such as Sweden and Denmark, people who have worked the night shift for 20 years or longer are compensated better in retirement than other shift workers. Denmark also was the first country to pay government compensation to women who develop breast cancer after long spells of working at night.

As for the case of the sleepy controller at Reagan National, it’s not clear yet what caused him to nod off, but it might be a wake-up call for the FAA to focus on reducing fatigue and long-term health problems in its shift workers, particularly those who may be pressed into overnight service over many years.