Wake Up: The Life you Save May Be Mine

sleep

By Phil La Duke

I am slowly migrating my posts from my other blog (the decommissioned Rockford Greene International blog that has since been renamed Worker Safety Net) to this blog.  But in the interest of not boring the socks off those of you who used to read both blogs, in each case, I rewrite and give a hard edit to these pieces. In short, while this may not be a entirerly new post I believe it is different enough to be worth the read.)

Tens of millions are spent reminding workers to work safely and be mindful of the many hazards they will inevitably face in the course of their workdays, but scare little focus has been cast on one of the biggest contributors to workplace injuries: the lack of sleep. The tentative recovery has employers gun-shy about hiring and as things pick up workers are increasingly fatigued as they try to do more and more with less and less.

Many of us worry about not getting enough sleep, but how harmful is the lack of sleep? Very. Consider the following:

  • Almost A Third Of Us Don’t Get Enough Sleep. According to Fox News, 30% of all American workers don’t get enough sleep (not on the job, of course). The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last year that 50 million to 70 million American adults suffer from sleep and wakefulness disorders.
  • Lack of Sleep Makes Us Sick. According to USNews.comlack of sleep has been tied to mental distress, depression, anxiety, obesity, hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol and certain risk behaviors including cigarette smoking, physical inactivity and heavy drinking.
  • Drowsy Driving Is a Major Issue. The most common workplace fatality is a traffic accident on the job. Drowsydriver.org reports that 60% of adult drivers—about 168 million people —say they have driven while drowsy 37% (or 103 million people), have actually fallen asleep at the wheel. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), more than 750 people die and 20,000 more are injured each year due directly to fatigued commercial vehicle drivers, and an estimated 20% of vehicle crashes are linked to drowsy driving.
  • The problem is bigger than just highway safety, according to Joseph Hallinan, in Why We Make Mistakes: How We Work Without Seeing, Forget Things In Seconds, And Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average nearly a dozen pilots fell asleep in mid-flight between 2003 and 2007, and when medical students reported working five or more marathon shifts in a single month caused the chance of making a mistake that harmed a patient went up 700%.
  • The Economy Isn’t Helping. Apart from the financial problems that keep you up at night, the floundering economy has made the workplace more dangerous in other ways, for example, studies have shown that workers with more than one job were significantly more sleep deprived, so those workers forced to moonlight to make ends meet are more likely to be sleep deprived.
  • Sleep Deprivation Contributes to Poor Decision Making. According to Hallinan, even moderate sleep deprivation can cause brain impairment equivalent to driving while drunk AND has been shown to significantly increase an individual’s willingness to take risks.

    In effect, sleep deprived workers make more mistakes, poorer decisions, and take more risks…all things that have been repeatedly shown to increase the probability of worker injuries.

What Can Be Done About it?

The last thing that anyone needs or wants, is another thing for the safety guy to carp about, but all is not lost; experts at the National Sleep Foundation and elsewhere offers tips for getting a good night’s sleep:

  1. Don’t sleep in on weekends; maintain your weekday sleep schedules.
  2. Wind down. Experts recommend that people establish a regular relaxing routine to transition between waking and sleep. Soaking in a hot tub and then reading a book before retiring can greatly improve the quality of sleep one gets. Make your bedroom sleep friendly—dark, quiet, comfortable and cool.
  3. Use your bed for sleeping. Experts warn that watching television or working on a computer (and butchering chickens I would suppose) can impede your ability to truly relax when it comes time for sleeping
  4. Avoid caffeine nicotine and alcohol for several hours before bedtime. It makes sense that not ingesting chemicals that increase your metabolism and make you jittery right before retiring won’t help you get restorative sleep.
  5. Allow enough to time for sleep. Before you raise your hands in protest that you would if you could, consider that people who get enough sleep are significantly more productive than those who are deprived.
  6. Nap. A twenty-minute (no more) nap followed by exercise will make you feel refreshed and provide you a pick-me-up that will make you more productive.
  7. Finish eating at least 2-3 hours before your regular bedtime. The act of digesting food takes a lot of energy and things that require your body to work hard make it more difficult to go to sleep.
  8. Exercise regularly and complete your workout a few hours before bedtime. The goal of exercise (at least cardio exercises) is to raise your heart rate, increase your metabolism, and generally do the opposite of what you should do right before bedtime. But regular exercise several hours before bedtime will actually help relieve stress and relax you sufficiently so that you can get a good night’s sleep.
  9. Recognize that one of the most common reasons for insomnia is worrying about not getting enough sleep. Lying quietly with ones eyes closed can be very restorative, and while it is not as healthy as deep REM sleep, it can be a short-term solution to the sleep deprivation problem.

Safety professionals should raise the awareness of this problem among workers and share tips for getting enough sleep, especially on the night shift or for workers assigned to swing shift.  While there has been no conclusive link between a lack of sleep and mortality, studies have shown that employees who work swing shifts tend to have shorter life-spans.

There comes a point where telling people what they need to do to be safe outside the workplace is intrusive and inappropriate; expecting workers to get enough sleep isn’t one of them. When the worker has a lifestyle issue—whether that be substance abuse or insomnia—that emperils him/herself or others in the workplace it is within the company’s right to act.

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