Helicopters Magazine

Be Alert, Stay Alive

March 11, 2016  By Paul Dixon

About 35 years of my adult life has been spent either working shifts or being on call 24/7, so it won’t surprise you to learn that sleep has fascinated me for a very long time.

For many years, I worked a rotating shift schedule – two days, two nights followed by four days off.  Over time, I worked out a sleep schedule that worked for me. My problem was that the world around me didn’t necessarily agree with me, so let’s just say it wasn’t easy.

There is no consensus (yet) in the scientific community about why we sleep, but there is agreement on what appear to be the three main reasons – restoration, energy conservation and brain function. Your body clock does not switch to night shift, because it can’t. It is permanently stuck on dayshift. In the 1950s, the average North American adult reported averaging eight hours of sleep a night.  Today, that average is down to six-and-a-half hours, a trend throughout our society. The situation is exacerbated by the reality that as we age, the quality of our sleep diminishes. A teenager will average 100 minutes of Stage 3 “deep sleep” a night, but by age 50, we are averaging only around 20 minutes. Shift workers suffering from chronic fatigue are more susceptible to heart disease, intestinal disorders and certain types of cancer. So, now they tell me.

Charmane Eastman, a physiological psychologist at Rush University in Chicago, says that in her studies, a significant factor in chronic fatigue is our unhealthy attitude about the need for sleep. The awareness of fatigue is one thing, but refusing to acknowledge the negative impact on our minds and bodies makes it next to impossible to take responsibility for making our situation better. Historically, there have been people who have claimed to get by on minimal sleep. Thomas Edison was widely quoted as saying he got by on four or five hours of sleep a night, while Margaret Thatcher, playing the Iron Lady to the hilt, said “sleep is for wimps.”

Fatigue can result from all kinds of work activities – mental stress, over-stimulation, under-stimulation, active recreation, depression, boredom, disease and yes, lack of sleep. When fatigued, you are more vulnerable to your own emotions and less able to read other people’s emotions. Being overly tired makes it difficult to concentrate, which increases the possibility of making errors on the job, while decreasing your ability to respond appropriately in stressful situations. Fatigue can introduce stress into the most benign situations. Sleep deprived people will panic, make poor decisions or are simply not capable of making any decision(s).


A classic example the role fatigue plays in poor decision making is illustrated in Dr. Scott Shappell’s tale of playing poker in Las Vegas with his father. If you’ve been to the CHC Safety & Quality Summit before, you know Shappell as a leading authority on human factors in aviation. He will tell you that his father is a farmer with a high school education, but taught the PhD’s a serious lesson in human factors in terms of playing poker.

Shappell takes his father to Las Vegas, they have a nice dinner and then settle in at a poker table.  After a few hours, Scott is up a few hundred dollars and is just getting going when his father says, “let’s go.” Over his protestations, they go back to their room, set the alarm and go to bed. When the alarm goes off at 5, they’re up and back downstairs to the poker tables. The same players are there, sleep-deprived and affected by the complimentary drinks. After a refreshing nap, father and son clean up at the poker table.

Losing your shirt at the poker table in Las Vegas because your decision-making capabilities have deserted you might have serious consequences, but the fact is, you’re still alive. But if you take your sleep-deprived brain to an already hazardous working environment, you’re going to be making mistakes in an environment where you can’t afford to be wrong.

There needs to be an acknowledgement by the organization – and the individual – that fatigue has the potential to create serious problems, physically and mentally. At the corporate level, there must be education on fatigue and wellness programs. On a personal level, be proactive in understanding your own sleep needs, the stressors in your life and take responsibility for your overall physical and mental wellbeing.

Paul Dixon is a freelance writer and photojournalist living in Vancouver.


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