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Sleep Deprivation and Workplace Fatigue

- November 26, 2019 by Stacey DeVries (View all posts by Stacey)

Quick quiz.  Name something that has been linked to the following high profile disasters- the 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, the 1986 nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, the grounding of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker and the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.  If you guessed sleep deprivation, you are correct.  In all of these high profile disasters, those in charge of operations and required to make critical decisions were operating under extreme sleep deprivation.  Not only did these incidents cost millions, even billions of dollars, they also caused innumerable damage to the environment and the economy.1

So what is sleep deprivation?  According to the American Sleep Association, it’s defined as not obtaining adequate total sleep.  When someone is in a sleep deprived state, they may experience the following:

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness or fatigue
  • Accidents from lack of attention
  • Moodiness
  • Hunger
  • Decreased brain and cognitive function

These effects can often lead to forgetfulness, reduced decision making ability, reduced reaction time, poor productivity, increased sick time, absenteeism, medical costs and increased incident rates.  In fact, fatigued workers lose 5.6 hours of productive time per week and losing even two hours of sleep is similar to the effect of having three beers!2   Many large studies have found a relationship between sleepiness and work-related injuries. Highly sleepy workers are 70 percent more likely to be involved in accidents than non-sleepy workers, and workers with chronic insomnia (difficulty getting to or staying asleep) are far more likely than well-rested individuals to report industrial accidents or injuries. People with excessive sleepiness who also snore (a potential sign of sleep apnea) are twice as likely to be involved in workplace accidents. And tragically, in one Swedish study of nearly 50,000 people, those with sleep problems were nearly twice as likely to die in a work-related accident.3

So who’s at risk?  Certain industries or positions that have certain characteristics can contribute to sleep deprivation.  Those characteristics may include long work hours, long hours of physical or mental activity, insufficient break time between shifts, changes to jobs or shift rotations, inadequate rest, excessive stress, having multiple jobs, or a combination of these factors.4    Some of the occupations affected by these characteristics are:

  • healthcare workers
  • transportation workers
  • construction workers
  • and hospitality workers. 

Cognitively demanding tasks such as, monotonous tasks (driving on a highway), high alert tasks (assembly line work), and repetitive tasks (data entry) can also be major drivers of sleep deprivation in the workplace.2

Advice for avoiding fatigue and sleep deprivation in the workplace as suggested by OSHA:

  • Examining staffing issues such as workload, work hours, understaffing and worker absences, scheduled and unscheduled, which can contribute to worker fatigue.
  • Arranging schedules to allow frequent opportunities for rest breaks and nighttime sleep.
  • Making adjustments to the work environment such as lighting, temperature and physical surroundings to increase alertness.
  • Providing worker education and training addressing the hazards, symptoms, and impact of worker fatigue inside and outside the workplace.  Also stressing the importance of adequate quality nutrition, exercise, and stress management strategies to minimize the adverse effects of fatigue.  
  • Consider implementing a Fatigue Risk Management Plan under which, like other risk factors, fatigue can be managed.

1 http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/matters/consequences/sleep-performance-and-public-safety

2 http://ergonomictrends.com/workplace-fatigue-statistics/

3 https://www.sleepfoundation.org/excessive-sleepiness/safety/relationship-between-sleep-and-industrial-accidents

4 https://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/psychosocial/fatigue.html

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