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Dr. Michael J. Breus

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Is Sleep Deprivation Your Badge of Honor?

Posted: 06/27/08 03:07 PM ET

Now this is crazy stuff: have you ever seen the popular reality show "Deadliest Catch" on the Discovery Channel? It is one of my favorites; I seem to just find it fascinating. It's about Alaskan king crab fishermen up in the Bering Sea, and what they risk to get their grubstake.

Seriously, this puts The Perfect Storm to shame, and I honestly don't know how they even manage to video tape some of this madness. Picture yourself on a fishing boat (try not to get seasick). You've got a 24-hour shift in front of you (no naps!)... as well as 40-foot waves thumping against the boat and sloshing you around constantly, 80-mile-per-hour winds whipping against every inch of you, and oh yes, subfreezing weather. You hope you can at least feel something in your hands so you can handle the 700-pound crab pots that are banging against the deck. The injury rate? One-hundred percent, from limbs to lives. 

Why, you might ask, would someone choose to do this?

Well, the payoff can be huge for the guys who brave this nearly superhuman task: jackpot crab pots can garner millions of dollars worth of highly-prized king crabs. (Yeah, the next time you order king crab in a well-to-do restaurant, stop and think for a moment what it took to get it there.) Boats that aren't successful in placing their pots in the hot spots can come home empty-handed, or so light-handed that their catch only covers the boat's operating expenses. 

I think it's crazy, but the allure must go deeper than the potential money. It must tap that proverbial "man versus nature" thing on some level. Many of these fishers come from families that have been in this business their whole lives--they know of nothing else and have no desire whatsoever to try doing anything else. To them, crab fishing not a job, it's a life. One of the captains of a boat didn't even think about how crazy his job was until the cameras started showing up to tape the show! Clearly, these people are doing what they've always done, and we're finally allowed "in" to see what it is they do.

One request: can they get more fishers on board to share the duties so everyone can get a good night's rest?

I think every captain would laugh at my suggestion. It appears to be a badge of honor that they can go days without sleep, even if this entails dangerous mistakes.

It is amazing to me that sleep deprivation is both a method of torture in some countries and a badge of honor all at the same time.

Some episodes have featured their contests for the first person to fall asleep and where (please not out on the edge of the deck). Occasionally the ships' captains fall asleep at the wheel during rough weather.   

This isn't the only profession where sleep deprivation is considered a badge of honor. There are many other people out there who brave sleepless nights and odd working hours, like medical residents and surgeons, college or graduate students, air traffic controllers, truck drivers, loggers, farmers, start-up entrepreneurs... just about any workaholic who can't fathom sleeping a full night's sleep when there's work to be done.

Many of the world's most dangerous professions entail multiple "badges of honor." People who do the fishing, hunting, and gathering for us folks are among the toughest and bravest individuals. They do extremely dangerous jobs that are in many cases conducted in an environment that is largely beyond their control. Nearly half of all fatal work injuries occurred among workers who drive or move material around for a living. Truck drivers, forklift operators, trash collectors, and cabbies are all part of this group. A sleepy truck driver or forklift operator having an accident is practically cliché.

According to a survey reported by CNN, the fishing industry is a perennial leader as measured by death rate; drowning is the most common cause of death in this industry (they can fall asleep first, then fall overboard!), but fishermen also suffer from fatal accidents in handling some of the heavy equipment that the modern fisheries employ--heavy equipment that requires fast-thinking, and an alert, awake mind.

Is it "brave" to avoid sleep for work? No. But unfortunately our social mores and industry prerogatives haven't changed.

Would the worlds "most dangerous jobs" (which sometimes gets labeled as the world's "worst jobs" because of this fact) become better if we set new standards that prevented fatal mistakes? Yes. I believe so, and we can do that starting with just one: making restful sleep a priority.

So I propose a new badge of honor: one that respects hard work and hard sleep. The two can work miracles. Oh, and let's not forget hard play. Now that's a recipe for living "on the edge." But I have to admit, I do find the show fascinating!

This post is cross-posted at Dr. Breus's official blog, The Insomnia Blog.


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