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I was zoned out.

Petty Officer Dale reports a common problem. He is not a psychologist or physiologist, but his research comes close to studies and presentations I've have seen. The Naval Safety Center Aeromedical Department offers a medical opinion at the end of AT2 Dales story.-Ed.

I was walking across a dark, busy flight deck and was heading toward turning props and moving aircraft. I was like a zombie and made it nearly half-way across the flight deck before I came out of my "zone." I stopped, got my bearings, and tried to figure out where I was and why I was there.

I often have thought about what had happened that night and on other nights when I felt zoned out. This problem isn't restricted to the flight deck; it also has happened while driving and during other menial, yet dangerous tasks. Talking with shipmates, I have found I'm only a small percentage of a dangerous statistic. I talked to 12 other maintainers about this problem, and they all admitted having the same moments. What causes this? I have not read any articles in safety magazines and never have seen anything on TV, so I researched the problem on my own and offer a lay-persons perspective.

Sleep or rest is a big factor. On the day I strolled merrily across the flight deck, I was operating on only three-to-four-hours sleep. In the week before my nearincident, I had slept only four-to-five-hours per night. I now know this was not enough sleep. I have seen reports that say humans need eight-hours sleep to be safe and productive, but other reports range between four to 10 hours.

The word "average" does not consider a typical Sailor's 12-to-14-hour workday and doesn't take into account the extreme heat, stress, and physical labor related to our workplace. With these facts in mind, the right amount of rest depends on the person. Every Sailor must monitor their sleep habits to determine the right length time necessary to maintain effectiveness.

Getting the proper amount of quality sleep over a significant period of time is critical. Two major factors will help: a good diet and reduced stress. These items can be hard to comply with at sea. Our galleys try hard to provide a good mealchock full of vitamins and minerals, but Sailors don't always eat what is offered, relying on "geedunk" rather than beneficial items from the food triangle. We also know that caffeine, excessive sugars and fat are not good for us. These items are hard to avoid on board our ships. I know some Sailors who drink three-to-four sodas a night. With all the caffeine and lack of restorative fluids in the body, it is no wonder sleep gets impaired.

We face stress every day, and we must find ways to combat this "sleep-and-attention killer." Stress can be good and bad. When it hones our skill it's good, but when it affects our ability to make a decision, makes us lose sleep, or interferes with safety, it is bad. I often have been tired but lie awake in my rack, looking at the ceiling and thinking about the life's problems. I know some readers have done the same thing. This problems happens and we still are expected to work just a few hours later. When this happens, the stress I had the night before is not released, and it tends to build up. That vicious cycle must be broken.

The Navy offers stress-management classes, but most people just need to take the time to relax, to stay focused, and to think through problems rationally. If you need to, talk to your supervisor, chaplain or the docs. We often get bent out of shape about things we can't control and later realize the item was trivial.

Petty Officer Dale wrote this story while assigned to VAQ-131. He now works at Naval Air Maintenance Training Unit, Whidbey Island, Wash.
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Author:Dale, Brian
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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