Fatigue management, the dangers of micro sleep

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Nelson Pierre
  • 71st Medical Operations Squadron
As the Air Force continues to increase its operational tempo, the number of Airmen suffering from fatigue will continue to increase. Fatigue is a subjective experience that is abundant, pervasive and insidious. In other words, it affects everybody, in everything we do, and we often don't know how impaired we really are.

I like to compare the actions of a fatigued Airman to those of a drunk driver. Both are impaired, and cannot reliably decide if they are able to safely perform their duties. And neither will respond to the subtle warning signs.

One of the warning signs is micro sleep, which is defined as a period of sleep that lasts up to a few seconds and is usually experienced by individuals who are severely deprived of sleep.

One facet of micro sleep that differentiates it from actual sleep is that the person does not know it is happening. Other warning signs include:

- Accepting lower standards
- Lack of patience
- Forgetfulness
- Slowed reaction time
- Instrument cross check breaks down

This decrease in alertness and overall mental performance can quickly cause an accident, injury or death.

Individuals can take several measures to combat fatigue, starting with a few alertness strategies:

- Engage in conversation with others
- Do something requiring physical action such as writing or isometric exercises
- Brush your teeth
- Stretch
- Find a light source
- Snack on foods that you have to chew such as beef jerky, seeds or gum.

Strategic caffeine use is another method used to combat fatigue.

For instance, a cup of coffee immediately before an event that requires alertness is almost as effective as taking a nap.

It is recommended not to exceed 600mg of caffeine per day, and it should be consumed gradually. If you find yourself dealing with fatigue regularly, only use caffeine when needed, not when you are already alert.

Fatigue management may be simple, but its proper application can save millions of dollars, not to mention someone's life.

Remember that fatigue is similar to alcohol consumption. Safety briefs teach us to take the keys away from a friend who has had too much to drink. I submit that we should take the same approach with a friend who is fatigued.

For more information on fatigue and other human factor topics, contact your local Aerospace & Operational Physiology Training Team at 213-7933.