Source:  Susan Vargas  

More than 1 in 10 injuries on the job may be linked to insufficient sleep, experts say.

For many people struggling to cope with the pressures of life in a 24/7, on-demand world, sleep gets relegated to the bottom of their to-do list. Sleep is sacrificed to squeeze in an extra hour of productivity, or because rest time is equated with wasted time.

“In America, we have a long-standing culture of thinking, ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead,’ or ‘Sleep is for lazy people,’ or ‘People who value rest are not as ambitious,’” said Emily Whitcomb, senior program manager, fatigue initiative, at the National Safety Council. “We have a history of incentivizing people who work long hours with extra pay, promotions and recognition.”

The failure to prioritize rest is a growing concern and taking a toll on U.S. workers.

“A large percentage of the U.S. workforce is fatigued on the job,” said Claire Caruso, a research health scientist at NIOSH.

Adults need seven to nine hours of sleep a night, according to the National Sleep Foundation and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. However, data from the National Health Interview Survey published in the journal Sleep shows that about 30% of U.S. civilian workers got less than six hours of sleep a night in the mid-2000s – up from 24% in the 1980s. Data from 2010 published in a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report in 2012 shows those percentages were even higher in certain industries, and especially among night shift workers:

  • 34.1% of workers in the manufacturing industry
  • 44% of all night shift workers
  • 52.3% of night shift workers in health care and social assistance
  • 69.7% of night shift workers in transportation and warehousing

Chronic fatigue is more than just a quality-of-life issue. “It’s estimated that about 13% of workplace injuries can be attributed to employees with sleep problems, and 21% of fatal crashes may involve a drowsy driver,” Whitcomb said. “There’s really no shortage of research out there that shows us a tired worker is more likely to be involved in an incident or get hurt at work.”

Despite all the research, how has such a significant risk factor gotten so little attention in the workplace? One reason is a simple lack of data.

“When employers fill out paperwork for an incident in the workplace, most are not asking about fatigue, how much sleep the person got or how many hours they worked in the last couple of days,” Whitcomb said. “So, while we know it’s a significant contributing factor to a good portion of workplace injuries and incidents, it’s hard for us to conceptualize just how big the problem is.”

This is your brain on too little sleep

Sleep is easily mistaken for time spent doing nothing, but experts describe it as an active process that plays a crucial role in our ability to function mentally and physically.

“Fatigue builds up with each hour we stay awake and dissipates as we sleep,” said Indira Gurubhagavatula, associate professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania Veteran’s Administration Medical Center and chair of the Public Safety Committee at AASM.

Physical symptoms of fatigue include yawning, difficulty focusing the eyes, upset stomach, headache, loss of muscle coordination, an increased risk of dropping things, and stumbling and falling. Cognitive effects include impaired memory, attention, judgment and concentration; difficulty processing complex data, making decisions and regulating emotions; and greater distractibility and risk-taking behavior.

“The effects of fatigue are very similar to the impairment caused by excessive alcohol,” Gurubhagavatula said. “One study has equated performance after 18 hours of being awake with performance while having a blood alcohol concentration of 0.05%, which is considered legally drunk in many states.”

Even mild, everyday fatigue can affect workplace safety and performance.

“Most employers underestimate how little sleep deprivation is necessary to result in detrimental outcomes,” said Christopher Barnes, associate professor of management at the University of  Washington Foster School of Business, who studies fatigue and human sustainability in organizations. “For example, my research indicates a 5.6% increase in mining injuries 
following the change to daylight saving time in the spring. That is less than an hour of sleep deprivation, and it produces a meaningfully harmful effect on employee safety.”

Equally troubling is the likelihood that workers won’t recognize their impairment. “Studies have shown that we are not good at assessing our level of fatigue,” Gurubhagavatula said, “and our awareness of the risks is clearly insufficient, given the data about fatigue-related driving accidents alone.”

The long-term effects on workers’ overall health and well-being can be just as concerning as the short-term safety implications, she noted. These include obesity, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease, as well as early mortality.