To Sleep or Not To Sleep—
That Is the Safety Question

By MR. DON MILLER, Staff Writer

Occurrences of fatigue among non-flight crew Airmen go back at least to 2005, when an Air Force Research Laboratory Shift Work Fatigue Survey concluded that “Fatigue management and sleep hygiene training should be made mandatory for shift workers and their schedulers, managers, and supervisors.” The survey also found that “The rest days in a shift work schedule should be treated in the same manner as the formal, inviolable crew-rest periods for aircrews.”

As recently as 2015, however, a U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) survey showed that 50.1 percent of Airmen reported getting less sleep than they needed. Clearly, a lot of work remains to ensure that Airmen get the rest they need so they can accomplish their jobs without incident.

The Air Force recognizes the problem and is addressing the challenge of fatigue for non-flight crew Airmen, but the problem persists. To increase education measures, the Air Force disseminated information about fatigue and its management to Airmen. The Air Force Medical Operations Agency has developed and published the Air Force Fatigue Management Guide. The guide covers subjects such as understanding the nature of fatigue, fatigue countermeasures, good sleep habits, and advice for handling unavoidable sleep loss.

Still, fatigue continues to be a real problem, which Airmen may just accept as going with the territory of their duties. According to the 2015 DoD survey, 20.3 percent of Airmen were moderately or severely bothered by sleep-related lack of energy, and 7.5 percent took sleep medications daily or almost daily. Additional research published in Nature Medicine in 2017 indicates that being sleep deprived for 17 hours is similar to the effects of a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.05 percent, and after 24 hours that number grows to a BAC of 0.1 percent—or legally intoxicated.

Needless to say, combining a functionally inebriated loadmaster with the task of squaring away aircraft cargo for flight is not an optimal situation. As recently as 2016, however, the Air Force itself was reporting that similar conditions existed in non-aviation areas of the service.

A report by the United States Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa Safety Office in 2016 proposes the following fictional scenario to be not uncommon among its overly hardworking Airmen.

Consider the following scenario. You are a shift worker working 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. You stay an hour later in order to fulfill the requirements of your additional duties and realize that you have mandatory training at 7 a.m. the following morning. You have a 30-minute drive home. You arrive at your house, trying to be quiet so you do not wake your family. You think about your sleeping 4-year-old who you have not spent much time with for days because of your shift. You finally get to sleep at 2 a.m., setting your alarm for 6 a.m. You get up the next morning after only getting 4 hours of sleep and drive in to your mandatory appointment. You drive back home at 9 a.m. hoping to get some rest.

But once you arrive at home, your 4-year-old is excited to see you at this time of day and wants to spend time with you. You decide to spend time with her, so you stay awake until your shift, which begins at 11 a.m. You report to work tired but drink energy drinks throughout the day. That evening, you drive home at midnight, in the dark, having only slept 4 hours in the last 48 hours.

The report goes on to propose Fatigue Risk Management Systems (FRMS) as a critical element to stem the problem of fatigue among non-flight crew Airmen. The report said, “Fatigue Risk Management System is a vital system that provides Commanders and Airmen with the tools necessary to appropriately manage fatigue risk.”

The systems are not magic bullets, but they can mitigate the potentially dangerous occurrence of fatigue into something that is more manageable by distributing the weight and applying it to both Airmen and their Commanders. Previously, the report noted, some Commanders had not been as diligent in addressing fatigue as they might have been.

The FRMS can also offer strategies to contend with challenges in staffing and scheduling, the report noted. “There is a science to scheduling,” the Safety Office emphasized. “While inadequate staffing may indeed be a burden that your unit bears, there are scheduling strategies that improve quality of life and ensure that Airmen are getting adequate rest.”

Clearly, chronic fatigue among Airmen will be a challenge both for Airmen and for their Commanders into the future, but just accepting the risks that come with increased fatigue as part of the job does not adequately address the safety issue. A proactive attitude is required to mitigate the extra-long hours and difficult schedules Airmen are sometimes called on to endure.

Perhaps the Air Force should regard the rest days in shiftwork schedules the same way as the formal, inviolable crew-rest periods for aircrews—or perhaps more liberal use of FRMS would be enough to mitigate the risks to safety that fatigue creates.

The conclusion is obvious, however: according to the studies, Airmen are not getting enough rest. Until they do, related increases in safety for non-flight crew Airmen will continue to be a goal rather than a reality.