Could our use of rotating shifts aboard our ships be counter-productive? One study suggest it is – and that there is a better way.
My former company officer, a Marine charged with developing and leading 150 midshipmen, once commented that rack-time was the goal of every midshipmen. While he was joking, it’s true we, as much as anyone else, enjoy being rested.
Last summer I shadowed enlisted members aboard a destroyer. It was my introduction to rotating shifts, where on a daily basis sailors rotated the hours they stood watches and slept.
Tasked with maintaining and operating a platform worth hundreds of millions of dollars, these sailors were always suffering from lack of sleep. As I remember, sailors could have a 0000-0400 watch then wake up for reveille at 0630. With the ship preparing for INSURV, no sleeping was permitted from reveille to 2230. Thus, there was always a duty section of fatigued sailors.
In 1988 Dr. Charles Czeisler and colleagues at the Center for the Design of Industrial Schedules conducted a sleep study of the Philadelphia Police Department. They reported astonishing results. Noticing that long, erratic work hours and shift work left police officers overly fatigued, he induced the Philadelphia Police Department to implement a new shift schedule. The result: a 21% drop in personnel falling asleep at work and an astounding 20% reduction in on-the-job motor vehicle accidents. Interestingly, daily alcohol usage dropped from 17% to 9%.
These are miraculous numbers for something as basic as adjusting the work schedule. One key change was a reduction in the number of shift changes from once every 8 days to once every 3 weeks. The sailors onboard my ship rotated their watches every day!
This study demonstrates getting the proper amount of sleep is a safety and performance issue. It also suggests the role of the commanding officer includes balancing crew rest and combat readiness.
Have we considered mandating that sailors receive 8 hours of sleep before reporting for duty, like aviators? Perhaps the Navy could provide COs, officers, and chiefs with more information on the impact of personnel scheduling and rest. Armed with this information, COs, officers, and chiefs can be more informed when determining the watch standing rotations
The submarines I have spent limited time on do not hold morning formation and operate efficiently. My destroyer held morning quarters formation for all hands, which disrupted the sleep of those who stood the midnight watch. Is morning quarters really worth this interruption?
Looking to the Future
I contacted Dr. Bryan Vila, a sleep and performance expert, from Washington State University about this study. He noted that the military “has been a critical source of leadership nationally” on the importance of sleep. In fact, he is currently building a lab concerned with fatigue issues with grants from the Office of Naval Research.
Any thoughts on how we can improve our scheduling or are we already doing the best we can? I also wonder if there are additional studies that would provide further guidance to COs on the watch scheduling?
Dr. Vila’s review of Dr. Czeisler’s study can be found in the September 2006 issue of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.
This post has been edited to correct that Dr. Czeisler’s performed the study of the police department, with Dr. Vila providing a review of it in 2006.