Anyone who has had a similar job can sympathize. I am willing to bet that there isn’t an office worker out there who hasn’t fallen asleep on the job at some point, whether out of sheer boredom or from truly being tired.
I say this not to give an excuse to the air traffic controller who reportedly fell asleep on the job at Reno-Tahoe International Airport this week. I say it only to offer a little sympathy to the person because we’ve all done it, and most of us don’t have to work in the middle of the night.
However, also speaking from experience, I know that my workplace napping is never truly full sleep. Those times when I knew I could get away with it, I closed my eyes, put my chin in my chest and allowed my mind to drift halfway to dreamland. It was peaceful and relaxing, but somehow I managed to maintain enough consciousness that I could quickly snap to attention if someone walked in. This was only possible when I had an office where I sat with my back to a wall and faced the door; not only do I not have time or reason to sleep on the job now, but people also can walk up behind me.
The other factor in my desk dozing was the knowledge that I had no reason not to catch some Zs. There were times when I literally had nothing to do for days on end. I could have danced around naked or conducted human sacrifices and no one would have known.
Perhaps it was a sign of my youthful attitude at the time, but I wasn’t about to tell anyone I had all this free time. Maybe they would have found something for me to do, or maybe they would have decided it wasn’t worth keeping me.
In the case of the local airport incident, the air traffic controller had plenty to do — namely, guiding an airplane carrying a sick passenger safely to the ground. And anyone who has watched airplanes come and go while waiting for their own flight knows that those big jets hit the ground every few minutes, so the air traffic controllers are plenty busy.
But they’re still human, and humans for the most part sleep at night. A person can quickly go from wide awake to uncontrollably sleepy in no time. I learned this nearly 15 years ago when I was driving on a highway in Nebraska late at night to an internship in Wisconsin. At about 11 p.m. I got a second wind and decided to drive all night. Just a few hours later that energy was suddenly gone and I began to nod off. To this day I can vividly recall seeing a pair of headlights coming straight at me just before I jerked the wheel violently to swerve out of the way. I am still not sure if it really happened or I imagined having drifted into oncoming traffic, but I do know I then slept in a rest stop parking lot for about four hours.
An Associated Press article published Saturday said the FAA won’t even allow air traffic controllers to sleep during their breaks, even though scientists recommend allowing it and other countries permit it. But then other countries provide medical care for all citizens while America apparently knows better.
The incidents of sleeping in the tower that were reported this week are no doubt just a snippet of the countless incidents that probably happen all the time with no consequences.
But that’s just lucky. If the government and scientists know that pilots and air traffic controllers, who hold in their hands the lives of a plane’s passengers, have fatigue issues while working at night they need to figure out a way to work around it. That might mean shorter shifts or split shifts with sanctioned sleeping in between. They have enough to think about with 10-ton hunks of metal defying gravity and not hitting each other in midair without also fighting the natural urge to sleep while the sun is down. If I am going to plummet to my death from 15,000 feet in a steel tube I at least want everyone awake at the controls while I do it.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have been typing for an hour and need a nap.
Nathan Orme is the editor of the Sparks Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.