Even the best security guards have to fight their own biology and environment to stay alert during late-night shifts.
Security officers are tasked with being vigilant at all times. Unfortunately, many biological and environmental factors conspire to make vigilance all the more difficult for officers forced to work late-night shifts.
In a recent ASIS CRISP report titled Fatigue Effects and Countermeasures in 24/7 Security Operations, James C. Miller, currently a consultant with Miller Ergonomics and formerly with the Air Force Research Laboratory, reports that during night work, productivity and efficiency decrease and safety risks rise. Miller told Security Management that humans are essentially not wired to work at night.
The report cites research findings that all humans need about eight hours of sleep a night, and when they do not get that, they start accruing a sleep deficit that needs to be addressed at some point. That can happen to anyone, but it’s a particular problem for night workers because of various environmental factors such as the abundance of light and general noise during the daytime when they need to both sleep and address social and family obligations.
Night work presents an added challenge because it goes against human biology. Humans have at least four systems in the brain that are operating at night and encourage us to sleep, says Miller. Among them are the circadian rhythm and homeostasis, which Miller describes as something of a sleep thermostat that triggers sleep when it’s needed. Those systems work together to keep us alert during the day and asleep at night.
John Caldwell, senior scientist with Fatigue Science, says it makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint; humans went thousands of years designed to be alert during the day and asleep at night, and it is only recently that electric light, machines, and transportation have made night work and travel easier.
“It’s almost overnight [that] technology creates this capability, and we humans have to adapt our physiology that’s developed over thousands of years to accommodate that,” says Caldwell.
The only true way to avoid fatigue is to get enough sleep, say Miller and other experts. Companies may need fatigue-management programs, but where they are needed, they have to be implemented as integrated endeavors, with management support, Miller stresses. He states that if they are individual approaches, they will be less successful.
Organizational commitment includes funding, the involvement of senior management, and policies, writes Miller.
The U.S. Air Force developed the Fatigue Avoidance Scheduling Tool (FAST) for its own personnel, but it can help any company schedule shifts that allow night workers to get adequate sleep. FAST is a computer program that quantifies the effects of work-rest schedules on crews and helps supervisors plan shifts accordingly. The goal is for the planner to aim for 90 percent cognitive effectiveness by adjusting work and rest schedules.
The tool equates fatigue levels with how blood-alcohol levels can affect a person’s performance. Caldwell helped develop FAST.
“If you can tell me how well you have been sleeping, and you can tell me where you are in the body clock, I can give you a great prediction of how effectively you’re going to perform and how likely you are to make a serious mistake no matter what the job is,” says Caldwell. Sleep deprevation “is going to have an impact on even the most simple task,” he says.
The CRISP report also cites other scheduling tools. However, it notes that there are limitations with scheduling approaches, because employers can’t control how much an employee will sleep when off-duty. People who work odd hours may have trouble sleeping when home or may choose not to sleep if that’s the only time they can be with family and friends.
For people not getting adequate sleep, there are some “band-aid” approaches that can mitigate the effects for brief periods. One band-aid approach would be allowing for “anchor sleep,” which, in the absence of an eight-hour block of sleep, is a four-hour block of sleep at the same time nightly, to be supplemented by an additional sleep period. Another approach is napping, either at home or at specified times and areas at the workplace when not on duty.
Other suggestions include the tactical use of caffeine—limiting normal caffeine intake so that when it is used to counter fatigue, the caffeine will have more impact. There are also prescription medications that can be used to keep someone awake, as well as doctor-assisted use of substances like melatonin that can help people sleep more soundly during their off-hours.
But some commonly accepted countermeasures do not work, points out Miller. Examples include listening to the radio or changing your diet.
Fatigue problems are acknowledged in the transportation industry and the military, but the issue is not necessarily addressed throughout the security industry, says Miller. That has to change, say Miller and Caldwell.
Caldwell compares it to the cultural shift that was necessary before cracking down on drunk drivers. “I think we’re right on the cusp of making that same sort of change that happened in society with the alcohol intoxication…. I think we’re not there, but I think we’re really close to being there.”