Sleep Deprivation & Workplace Safety

Sleep Deprivation & Workplace Safety.

by: Paul Colangelo

Sleep deprivation has long been an issue for workers in all industries, and it impacts workplace safety and the overall health and wellness of the individual. 2020 has seen significant increases in worker sleep deprivation. Among the reasons are:

  •          Stress and health related issues from COVID-19 pandemic
  •          Essential workers subject to longer shifts and increased productivity demands
  •          Furloughed individuals working multiple jobs to make ends meet
  •          Balancing work and home responsibilities
  •          Financial stress
  •          Sleep disorders

Humans all have a natural regularity to our sleep cycles—called a circadian rhythm—that tells us when to sleep and when to be awake. Most people need between 7 and 8 hours of sleep each night. When the body and brain are deprived of sleep, fatigue can have significant effects on a worker’s physical and mental abilities. Sleep disorders and shift work are common factors for worker fatigue. For HAZWOPER professionals, awareness and attention is of vital importance, so proper HAZWOPER training is key to that success so workplace safety and caution is always upheld.

Sleep disorders, such as insomnia and sleep apnea, are common and often undiagnosed in workers. According to a 2008 report by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes, an estimated 40 million Americans are diagnosed with a chronic long-term sleep disorder each year, and 20 million Americans have occasional sleep problems. Certain lifestyle behaviors can trigger sleep disorders, such as smoking, alcohol consumption, caffeine intake, drug use, improper diet, and lack of exercise.

Insomnia is a common sleep disorder that can make it hard to fall asleep, hard to stay asleep, or cause you to wake up too early and not be able to get back to sleep. You may still feel tired when you wake up. Insomnia can greatly affect your energy level, mood, health, work performance and quality of life. Short-term (acute) insomnia can last for days or weeks and is usually the result of stress or a traumatic event. Long-term (chronic) insomnia can last for a months and years and is often associated with both diagnosed and undiagnosed medical conditions.

Sleep apnea is a medical disorder characterized by erratic breathing patterns during sleep. Because sleep apnea repeatedly disrupts normal sleep patterns, those affected are often fatigued during the day. Many individuals who suffer from sleep apnea are not even aware they have it. Sleep studies are utilized to accurately determine a diagnosis for sleep apnea, and the disorder is treatable once diagnosed. Employers should note sleep apnea may disqualify someone from performing certain work tasks, such as operating vehicles or equipment. It is also important to know that sleep apnea is covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA.

 Shift Work: If you are one of the millions of people who work on a shift, getting adequate sleep may often be difficult. Shift work is defined as a work schedule outside of normal daylight hours, typically between 7am-6pm. These occupations include:

  •          Police, fire and other emergency response personnel
  •          Hospital and medical facility workers
  •          Commercial transportation drivers
  •          Construction and factory workers
  •          IT and call center support personnel

For those that do not perform shift work, their circadian rhythm tells them to be asleep at night and awake during the day. This is a problem for shift workers who must sleep during the day, when their circadian rhythm tells them to be awake, and for day workers who must wake up very early to go to work. These types of shifts may cause sleep to be cut short, resulting in a feeling of tiredness or sleepiness.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health, NIOSH, has conducted significant research on shift work and fatigue. Their 1997 publication titled Plain Language About Shift Work, can be a valuable source of information for employers. 

Sleep Deprivation & Fatigue: Worker fatigue is a common root cause of workplace safety incidents that can often lead to severe injuries and death. We all know and have experienced how fatigue can severely impact our behavior and attitude. The behavioral changes include:

  •        Anger
  •        Confusion
  •        Impatience
  •        Extreme mood swings
  •        Depression and despair
  •        Withdrawal away from others
  •        Lack of caring or concern
  •        Impaired decision-making and judgement
  •        Short-term memory problems
  •        Poor concentration and attention span
  •        Avoiding eye contact

 Fatigue can also have severe physical effects on the body. These include:

  •          Headaches
  •          Body aches
  •          Blurred vision and hallucinations
  •          Slowed reflexes and responses
  •          Poor overall health

 Any of these conditions can be a breeding ground for increased risk of workplace safety incidents.

Fatigue Management Planning: Employers should develop and implement a Fatigue Management Plan into their overall safety & health program which focuses on topics such as:

  •          Awareness, such as learning how to spot signs and symptoms of fatigue
  •          Administrative controls, like how to exercise work shifts options
  •          Overall employee health and wellness outreach via company wellness programs

Company Wellness Programs have grown in popularity over the last 50 years and have been implemented across many industries. A company wellness program can also be a leading indicator and measure of a company’s overall safety culture and climate.

Company wellness programs became commonplace after the 2010 passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The law offered companies incentives to introduce and support participatory wellness and prevention programs. Companies might reduce their health care insurance costs by detecting or preventing serious diseases and disorders. These programs also allow easy access and education for healthy living resources to employees that would not normally have the means or determination to acquire.

A company wellness program can be very simple or complex and is totally voluntary for the employees.

Basic wellness programs include offerings such as annual flu shots, stretch and flex programs (which when implemented before the start of a work shift can greatly reduce strains and sprains and other musculoskeletal disorders), and ongoing training and education programs. Complex programs can include weight loss programs, yoga, counseling and therapy services, routine medical screenings, sleep studies, and addiction rehabilitation services.

Employers should consult with their insurance carriers or brokers for guidance on developing their company wellness program. An excellent resource is once again the National Institute for Safety and Health, or NIOSH, and their Total Worker Health Program. It contains information and helpful tips on establishing an effective health and wellness program in your workplace.

 Click here to learn more about the NIOSH Total Worker Health Programs