Not only is being a Pilot a sedentary job position, but there are also a number of potential hazards to a pilot’s health while flying and being exposed to high altitudes for hours at a time, even in pressurized cabins.
Add on the additional stress of 10 to 12-hour workdays, with long flights and jetlag and unhealthy airport foods and Pilots can become vulnerable to certain health risks.
Aviation Medicine is an actual branch of medicine that focuses on the health risks of pilots to ensure that the risks are kept to a minimum. Aviation Medicine personnel have training in both flying and in medicine so that they can understand the special conditions that exist in an aircraft and how these conditions can affect the health and capabilities of pilots.
Fatigue: Fatigue is the most common problem or health risk faced by pilots and sleep disruption is the main cause of fatigue. Pilots in today’s commercial industry can fly lengthy routes and have varying schedules that alternate between day and night shifts and traverse multiple time zones. Pilots tend to remain sleep-deprived which disrupts the body’s natural circadian rhythm which makes sleep a precious commodity. Fatigue can affect the decision-making skills of the pilots and lead to other health risks if not mitigated in time.
Deep Vein Thrombosis: Deep Vein Thrombosis or DVT is a condition that can happen if a pilot sits in one place for too long. Sitting in a vertical position throughout the duration of their flights prevents the normal circulation of the blood from the legs which can lead to swelling in the ankles and can increase the blood’s tendency to form clots. In order to avoid this, especially on longer flights, pilots are advised to get up and move about in order to keep the body and legs active.
Radiation: As pilots remain at high altitudes for the majority of the time during their flights, they are at risk of high-level solar and cosmic radiation. Flight crews can be exposed to over 100 times the radiation they would receive at sea level and are exposed to as much radiation as some nuclear power plant workers. Studies have shown that flight crews are several times more likely to contract certain cancers, such as breast cancer and melanoma.
Hypoxia: Hypoxia is a condition when the brain does not get enough oxygen which is very common at high altitudes. Although oxygen is added back to the air within the aircraft, the oxygen content is still lower than at ground level. Even a small loss of cabin pressure can cause oxygen levels to drop further, causing blurred vision and affecting the decision-making skills of the pilots.
Dehydration: Dehydration is when the body does not get adequate water. The body and brain tend to react slower and become fatigued faster without water. The air conditioning system in the aircraft cabin tends to have a very low moisture level and becoming dehydrated can lead to several other problems while flying.
In order to minimize the health risks, pilots are advised to have a proper diet, exercise regularly and sleep well. A routine fitness regime for the pilots is highly important so that they remain fit and active. Pilots should stay at hotels that have a gym facility so that they can exercise in between their long flight hours and stay healthy.
Although airport food options are more diverse than they used to be, pilots still have a difficult time finding healthy options or finding the time for a proper ’sit down’ meal.
The Federal Aviation Administration has issued certain strict rules for the pilots and airline companies so that the risks on the pilot’s health can be minimized substantially.
The rules set a rest period for pilots to a minimum of 10 hours and the pilots must have the opportunity to have eight hours of sleep during that rest period. The rules also require airlines to ensure that pilots are free from duty for a minimum of 30 consecutive hours per week. These rules are designed to provide the necessary rest intervals for the pilots to function at their best during their flights.
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