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Shawn Vestal: A long, sleepless night working is no way to stay safe in the sleigh

Santa (Steve Livingstone) and Mrs. Claus (Gwen McMillen) lead the Dec. 23, 1999, sidewalk parade from the STA Plaza down Wall Street to the Riverfront Park Christmas tree for caroling. About 20 people joined the parade.  (LIZ KISHIMOTO/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIERW PHOTO ARCHIVE)

Santa Claus should thank his lucky stars he didn’t crash that sleigh last night.

Because covering the globe in one unbroken 23-hour shift makes him – to say nothing of Dancer, Dasher and the gang – a fatigue-related accident just waiting to happen. In fact, it’s just as he passed over our part of the globe that he would have been at “maximum sleepiness” and most susceptible to making a sleep-deprived mistake.

That’s the takeaway from a recent paper by researchers at Washington State University, who analyzed the potential impacts of a Christmas all-nighter on Santa – “an overweight, older male seasonal worker and his reindeer-propelled global distribution team,” as a WSU news release put it.

The paper’s authors concluded that Santa, like anyone working extended hours on little sleep, should take steps to offset fatigue by sleeping extra hours beforehand, manipulating his circadian clock with melatonin, using bright light to foster wakefulness and consuming caffeine.

“Like other night-shift and extended-duty workers, Santa faces several fatigue-related risks that can greatly impact safety while on the job and, unfortunately, his highest level of risk occurs right as he is delivering packages here in the U.S.,” said Hans Van Dongen, director of the WSU Sleep and Performance Research Center and co-author of the paper, in a news release.

“Out of an abundance of concern for Santa, his reindeer and our communities, we wanted to share this analysis to ensure that every precaution could be taken for a safe flight.”

The paper was published in the journal Sleep Health with the incredibly festive title, “Seasonal night work with extended hours and transmeridian travel; An analysis of global fatigue-related sleigh crash risk.” WSU’s Van Dongen and Peter McCauley co-authored the paper with researchers from the University of Pennsylvania.

“As fatigue may adversely affect safety, we performed a case study … of fatigue and crash risk in an operational archetype, a seasonal night-worker (male, age 50+, body mass index > 30) referred to here as ‘SC,’” reads the article. “Our objective is to highlight the factors that contribute to fatigue and to help improve safety in around-the-clock operational settings by illustrating strategies to reduce fatigue and its associated risks.”

The WSU research center studies sleep and the effects of inadequate sleep. Since it was founded in 2008, it has grown to include a faculty of more than 16, working with the Elson S. Floyd School of Medicine, and become widely recognized for its research, including basic and applied projects, in its sleep lab at the Riverpoint campus and in homes.

Some 40% of us get insufficient sleep or have sleep disorders, the WSU center says. Bad sleep helps foster problems such as depression, anxiety and chronic pain, and increases the risk of cardiovascular, gastrointestinal and neurological problems.

It’s also hell on decision-making and reaction times. Among the center’s main areas of focus is the effects of sleep loss on workers who work nights or long shifts, such as truck drivers or health care professionals, and the ways they might offset the problems associated with too little sleep.

And who works a longer night shift than Santa?

The paper’s authors used 2020 data from the North American Aerospace Defense Command’s Santa tracker, which simulates the Christmas Eve journey from the North Pole and back. They identified the window of time in which the hours of wakefulness would combine with a low ebb in the jolly old elf’s circadian rhythm, and make him most susceptible to making a mistake.

That, it turns out, is right over North America – the U.S. and Mexico.

Among the steps the authors suggested for Santa to offset his sleepiness: Banking sleep by snoozing for 10 hours a night in the weeks before Christmas. Combining some of the other strategies – such as bright light and coffee – could help reduce the risk, as well.

Furthermore, Santa ought to consider his waistline, the authors wrote a touch Scroogishly.

“To make sure the sleep obtained is recuperative, SC should be screened for sleep disorders,” they wrote. “Obesity is a major risk factor for obstructive sleep apnea, a disorder characterized by collapsing of the airway during sleep and associated with fragmented and non-restorative sleep. Obesity is also independently associated with increased sleepiness.”

Santa is now, no doubt, sleeping off his long night. Research does show that you can catch up on lost sleep, contrary to popular belief.

Next year, though, he might consider – ere he drives out of sight – getting a jump on the problem.

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