Attrition: Speed Kills, Sanity Rules

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August 15, 2015: The U.S. Navy has come to realize what civilian firms (including shipping companies and airlines) have known for decades; lack of sleep is dangerous and very expensive. The U.S. Department of Defense recently crunched the numbers it had on sleep habits and accident rates of all military personnel and concluded it would save lives and a lot of damage to equipment if, for example, sailors were allowed to get more sleep at sea and serve shorter periods on duty each day. This is difficult to implement because lack of sleep and keeping people on duty even when they are obviously having a hard time staying awake, much less alert, has long been taken for granted and accepted as a worthy tradition. It was another one of those difficulties navy personnel had to overcome to become a real sailor. Lots of strong black coffee and resolute leadership was seen as the solution to sleep deprivation problems.

But now the data is making it clear that merchant marine sailors and civilian firms doing similar work (like running nuclear reactors) have become more effective, and less accident prone, by adopting more pragmatic attitudes towards sleep and dealing with fatigue. Commanders now have data making it clear how much more effective sailors are when they get enough sleep.

Commanders were shown that using work schedules that allowed sailors to sleep the same time most days improved effectiveness and reduced the incidence of accidents and poor performance. It was also pointed out that more soundproofing in sleeping areas would improve the quality of sleep, as would reducing use of the public address system in sleeping areas, except for emergency messages. Better mattresses and curtains to keep out light also helps.

The study also pointed out that the traditional medications used in “sleep emergencies” were really only useful in rare and very real emergencies. These drugs have been used for nearly a century and the risks are generally known. The use of amphetamines (also called "speed" and "uppers") by combat troops and pilots began soon after amphetamines became available. Amphetamines were put on the market in the 1930s, and when World War II rolled around they were a favorite (although often unauthorized) method for infantry, sailors and pilots to keep alert after too many hours, or days, without sleep. World War II saw the widespread use of "24 hour combat" and long range aircraft for the first time. For the infantryman, or vehicle driver, lack of sleep became a life-threatening condition. Thousands of American troops died during the war when they fell asleep at the wheel and crashed their trucks or armored vehicles. Pilots of heavy bombers, patrol aircraft, and transports suddenly found themselves on long flights (ten hours or more) and expected to execute tricky landing procedures at the end of the mission. Infantry and sailors were called on to be "on alert" (manning their weapons) for 12-24 hours (or more) at a time with no rest. The USAF finally recognized the need for amphetamines in the 1950s, as they introduced bombers that could stay in the air for 24 hours or more (with in-flight refueling) and officially approved the use of prescription amphetamines in 1960. In the 1960s it became popular for long haul truckers, and college students cramming for exams, to use illegal amphetamines. And they were illegal (available only by prescription) for good reason. For while amphetamines kept you "up," when you stopped taking them, you risked mental depression ("crashing"), erratic behavior or worse. The drug had to be used with care. The military has long considered amphetamines just another dangerous tool they have to use to stay alive in combat. And that's basically what amphetamines are to the troops, a dangerous item that is less dangerous than the alternative (crashing while landing your aircraft, or getting jumped by an attacking enemy.) Looking at the numbers shows that a little more imagination and strong leadership when it comes to getting troops time to rest works a lot better than anything else, including drugs. 

 


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