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Capt. Erin Fager speaks to airmen new to Misawa Air Base, Japan, on Tuesday about sleep deprivation and being careful about buying nutritional supplements off-base. Fager, 27, is the chief of the base's human performance training team. She aims to help airmen eliminate human error by educating them on health, situational awareness and other issues.

Capt. Erin Fager speaks to airmen new to Misawa Air Base, Japan, on Tuesday about sleep deprivation and being careful about buying nutritional supplements off-base. Fager, 27, is the chief of the base's human performance training team. She aims to help airmen eliminate human error by educating them on health, situational awareness and other issues. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — Having trouble staying awake on the graveyard shift?

Capt. Erin Fager can tell you how to keep alert, and it doesn’t involve caffeine-charged energy drinks.

An aerospace physiologist, Fager aims to help airmen reduce mishaps as part of a current effort by the Air Force to expand the science of human performance beyond pilots and air crews.

"We focus on all of our fighters," Fager said.

Fager is chief of human performance training for the 35th Aerospace Medicine Squadron at Misawa. Most Air Force bases now have human performance training teams, including Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, where the program has been opened to the other services around the island, according to the Air Force.

The Air Force realized there was a big need to expand human performance training, Fager said.

"Ops (operations) tempo is increasing. We’re doing more with less," she said. "So there is a need to increase performance and get that awareness out there."

Through work-site visits and talking with airmen and supervisors, Fager helps squadrons identify "human factors" that may compromise safety or affect job performance.

"Seventy percent of all Class A mishaps are human-factors related," she said. "That’s a pretty disturbing number. That’s something that we can help with."

Class A mishaps include a loss of life or property damage greater than $1 million.

One topic she works hard to educate airmen about is sleep deprivation from swing-shift duty.

"If you’re working 15 hours straight or just awake for that long — which is very common when you’re deployed — you’re equivalent cognitively to someone with a blood alcohol level of 0.05." Fager said.

A level of 0.08 would land a driver in jail in the United States.

Good nutrition, physical fitness, drinking plenty of water and just being aware that one’s abilities may not be as sharp late at night or after a long shift are all ways to counter fatigue, she said.

At her last assignment at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., Fager said, airmen often popped energy pills to stay awake, something she calls "very dangerous territory," especially when combined with caffeine.

Explained Fager: "It may be effective for a little while," but when it wears off, "you’re going to hit the wall, and you’re not going to be performing very well."

Fager advises servicemembers at those times to reach for lean protein, such as tuna fish, protein bars with low sugar, or lean deli meat on whole-grain bread.

When briefing airmen new to the Air Force, Fager often gets questions about the use of nutritional supplements. And when it comes to the purity of those bought outside the base, she is skeptical.

"Some supplements work great," she said. But "over here, for them to buy supplements from the economy, it’s written in kanji. How do they know what they’re taking or whether they’re taking it correctly?"

The solution: "Buy it in English" and use sparingly, she said.

The bottom line, she tells airmen: "If you take care of yourself, and you’re aware of your environment, you’ll perform better" and be safe.

Tips to boost awareness for night-shift workers

Those late-night hours — after midnight and before dawn — can be a drag for night-shift workers.

There’s a scientific explanation for that grogginess, Capt. Erin Fager of the 35th Aerospace Medicine Squadron said, and it’s called circadian rhythm — or more commonly, one’s internal clock.

Between the hours of 2 and 5 a.m. "is usually the roughest for shift workers, because that’s when your natural circadian dip is," Fager said. Core body temperature and alertness drop.

"That’s when we see most nighttime accidents, during that time frame," she said.

To boost alertness, Fager said, shift workers should try to get their face in the sun when they wake up and before they go to work, and eat a nutritional meal, high in protein and complex carbohydrates. It’s even OK to drink a cup of coffee. The idea is to fool your body into thinking its morning, she said.

When those tough, early morning hours hit, try to stay busy and engaged with co-workers, Fager suggested. Doing push-ups or sit-ups also will help.

"That’s probably the time where you really need to double-check your work, check your buddy’s work, watch out for each other," she said.

author picture
Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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