Sleep is often overlooked in our overworked society. Pressing matters of survival push people to their limits and rest becomes an afterthought. Yet the medical community has long stated that for a healthy balance we should be spending approximately a third of our lives in slumber to be fully functional day to day. The underslept can be just as dangerous on the road as people who drink and drive, and they pose a major safety risk in dangerous work environments. Employers are wising up to the impact of fatigue and how it affects every area of life.
The American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine defines fatigue from a number of factors including physically or mentally strenuous work, long hours on the job, a disproportionate workload, sleep deprivation, and other stressors in one’s medical health or environment.
It is worth noting that the energy required for interpersonal dynamics can be very draining. If an employee suffer poor social interactions with those who work along side them, sleep will not be the determining factor in their ability to perform.
Occupational fatigue symptoms manifest in slower reaction times, increased errors and decreased mental capacity. Fatigue does not just affect dangerous industries, it can influence any area of business. However, the highest risks come from industries that expect their workers to do their job many days in a row without time off, while working long hours in rough environmental conditions, such as working in the freezing cold or a poorly ventilated warehouse. Add additional jobs one person manages and those risks continue to go up.
David Lombardi, a leading research scientist at the Center for Injury Epidemiology, and researcher Simon Folkard, of the Université Paris Descartes, have compiled a risk index to predict the potential for work-related injuries due to work schedules. The type of shift, the presence of working back to back shifts, and total work hours per shift with breaks to rest were huge influencers. The risk was 31% higher for night shift workers than those who worked mornings. Alarmingly, by the fourth shift in a row, the risk was 36% higher than the initial night, with risks doubling by the 12th hour of a shift. The research shows the necessity of breaks, revealing that the risk of injury could be 50% lower after any length of rest while working. Their estimated yearly number of injuries rate at 7.89 per 100 employees sleeping less than five hours a day, while the numbers are considerably lower at 2.27 per 100 employees who manage to get seven to eight hours of slumber.
HOW TO REDUCE RISK
How can employers improve these numbers and reduce the risks to their workforce? Educating on the importance of sleep is fundamental. Employers can take the initiative and communicate to their employees to get more rest, provide brighter work spaces with designated spaces for naps, and warn against the stimulating effects of using electronic devices after work – a hard habit for many to break!
A Liberty Mutual report recommends day over night shifts, no more than five to six day shifts in a row, and only four consecutive shifts for night workers. They also recommend workers receive at least two consecutive days off with regular schedules, and the opportunity for frequent breaks.
While supervisors can look out for signs of fatigue, technology has also been helpful in observing fatigue among workers. Chicago-based USG Corporation placed sensors in its trucks to monitor drivers after one fell asleep behind the wheel, causing the truck to move up a berm and tip over its load. Luckily, the operator was uninjured. Since then, these new sensors track eye movements and will send warnings through loud buzzing or vibration of the operator’s seat if their attention strays or they fall asleep. There is a monitoring center in place that analyzes the sensor data as well. What they found was that there were two to three fatigue incidents happening daily. With the sensor warnings, the incidents fell to two or three a week, and then only one or two per month! This is an excellent of example of how significant a risk management system can be in reducing injuries.
Even if a business cannot fund a management system, actions can still be taken to raise awareness. Communicating with employees to not indulge in alcohol before sleep, rotating safety-sensitive work to other employees or times when wakefulness is more likely, providing breaks, and even having a coffee habit and changing elements in the environment like temperature, noise, lighting, and vibration can improve safety.