A good night’s sleep improves performance, according to a study by researchers at the University of Geneva; yet less than half of adults get the recommended eight hours a night. Workers who do not get enough sleep are at higher risk for injuries and certain health problems. OSHA warns that lack of sleep among shift workers can lead to operator error and work injuries.
Consequences of Lack of Sleep
James Herdegen, medical director of the Sleep Science Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, found that lack of sleep impairs thought processes, memory, and math skills. Tired workers make more errors on the job, such as giving incorrect verbal orders, making mistakes in paperwork, and operating equipment improperly. He suggests that tired workers may have contributed to such disastrous events as Amtrak train derailments and the Exxon Valdez oil spill. We talk more about the consequences of sleep deprivation in our article “Eight Hours of Sleep Reduces Your Risk of Injuries.”
While increasingly busy and high stress lives contribute to lack of sleep for everyone, workers in “odd-hours jobs” are at especially high risk of sleep deprivation. These include health workers, truckers, emergency responders, shift workers, and others who do not work regular eight-hour days.
Twenty percent of American workers (more than 21 million people) work shifts. Shift workers tend to get only five to seven hours a sleep each day, well below the eight-hour standard. As a result, they are at higher risk for peptic ulcers, hypertension, obesity, and cardiovascular disease, according to Herdegen. They are also at high risk of falling asleep at the wheel–before, during, or after work.
Workers may not be able to make up for lost sleep by sleeping extra on weekends. According to a study at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, workers develop “sleep debt” that they cannot repay. They may feel good for a few hours after a long sleep, but the next time they lose sleep their performance is likely to suffer in many ways.
What Employers Can Do
Employers can take steps to reduce the hazards posed by tired workers. They can:
- Monitor odd hours workers for signs of tiredness, such as irritability, lack of concentration, depression, headache, or frequent yawning or blinking.
- Allow workers who show signs of fatigue to rest.
- Train workers about the importance of adequate sleep, and what they can do to improve their sleep.
- Provide adequate staffing so workers do not have to work excessive overtime and so replacements are available for tired workers.
- Provide high intensity lighting to stimulate workers.
- Break up monotonous work by changing tasks every hour or two. Variety helps people stay alert.
- Urge workers to take naps if needed, perhaps by combining two 15-minute breaks into one 30-minute nap.
Workers who are overtired or who work odd hours may have difficulty falling asleep even when they have the time. Employers can include sleep suggestions in safety messages and toolbox talks. Experts recommend strategies such as the following to aid sleep:
- Avoid drinking alcohol or caffeine within a few hours of bedtime.
- Avoid working on the computer just before bedtime.
- Exercise regularly and eat healthy foods.
- Play soft music at bedtime.
- Wear a sleep mask.
Medical providers and sleep clinics may be able to make further recommendations to help overtired workers get the sleep they need.
New Warning about Sleep Deprivation and Safety. Safety/NewsAlert. http://www.safetynewsalert.com/new-warning-about-sleep-deprivation-and-safety/
Combating Workplace Sleep Deprivation. EHS Today. http://ehstoday.com/safety/ehs_imp_80170
OSHA Standards for Night Shift Workers. Chron. http://smallbusiness.chron.com/osha-standards-night-shift-workers-12163.html
Wake Up and Get Some Sleep! OSHA. www.osha.gov/dte/grant_materials/fy09/sh-19504…/wake_up.pptx