Sleepless on the Job

sleeping worker

Everybody needs a good night’s sleep in order to rejuvenate the body. Unlike a truck that recharges while it is running, the body needs sleep to avoid fatigue. Unknown to many employers and employees alike, lack of sleep can affect a worker’s performance and safety. In addition, chronic sleep deprivation can also cause depression, obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and other serious illnesses.

Workers who do not get at least seven uninterrupted hours of sleep per night may be affected by sleep disorders and fatigue. Sleep deprivation and fatigue can lead to accidents, poor work performance and absenteeism. Studies show approximately 40 percent of all workers may be affected by sleep disorders and fatigue.

In 2017, the National Safety Council (NSC) teamed up with investigators from Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) to increase employer and employee awareness about sleep disorders and how they can affect safety on the job and the company’s bottom line. According to the NSC, approximately 13 percent of workplace injuries may be caused by employee sleep disorders such as sleep apnea or insomnia. The NSC estimates that lack of sleep can be costing companies approximately $3,500 per employee each year. Check out the Fatique Cost Calculator on the NSC website – forms.nsc.org/real-costs-of-fatigue-calculator/index.aspx

What Causes Sleep Disorders?

Research by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) shows that people in the United States get 20 percent less sleep than a century ago. The NSF recommends 7 to 9 hours of sleep for adults. Unfortunately, many workers don’t realize how important sleep is to their safety and overall health.

Some employees don’t get enough sleep due to self-imposed sleep deprivation. For example, they may choose or have to work more hours and forgo sleep to spend more time with family and friends. Others may just be staying up late at night and getting up too early in the morning. Sometimes there just does not seem to be enough hours in a day to get everything done. The result is the worker may not be getting enough sleep, which could eventually affect job performance.

Insomnia is the most commonly recognized sleep disorder experienced by at least 40 million people each year. There are two forms of insomnia, which are based on its duration. The NSF defines insomnia as either acute or chronic:

  • Acute insomnia is brief and often happens because of life circumstances (for example, when you can’t fall asleep the night before an exam, or after receiving stressful or bad news). Many people may have experienced this type of short-lived sleep disruption, and it tends to resolve without any treatment.
  • Chronic insomnia is disrupted sleep that occurs at least three nights per week and lasts at least three months. Chronic insomnia disorders can have many causes. Changes in the environment, unhealthy sleep habits, shift work or other clinical disorders. In some situations, certain medications could lead to a long-term pattern of insufficient sleep. Chronic insomnia can be linked to other medical or psychiatric issues. People with chronic insomnia may benefit from medical treatment to help them get back to healthy sleep patterns.

Sleep apnea is a disorder that occurs when a person struggles to breathe freely throughout the night and can lead to fragmented sleep. Sleep apnea affects 18 million Americans — and there are certain characteristics that can put you at a higher risk for the disorder.

The apnea in sleep apnea occurs when breathing is briefly and repeatedly interrupted for at least 10 seconds during sleep. Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the muscles in the back of the throat fail to keep the airway open, despite efforts to breathe. Another form of sleep apnea is central sleep apnea, in which the brain fails to properly control breathing during sleep. Obstructive sleep apnea is far more common than central sleep apnea.

Chronic snoring is a strong indicator of sleep apnea. Other symptoms include choking, gasping or interrupted breathing. Since people with sleep apnea tend to be sleep deprived, they may suffer from sleeplessness and a wide range of other symptoms, which include disturbed sleep, excessive sleepiness during the day, high blood pressure, heart attack, congestive heart failure, cardiac arrhythmia, stroke or depression. People who experience these symptoms should be evaluated by a health professional.

Why Workers Get Sleepy:

  • Lack of sleep. Many workers simply do not get enough sleep. Workers should get at least seven hours of sleep per night. It’s not just the amount of sleep the preceding night that matters, but also the amount of sleep over the last few nights (days) or even longer if a worker is suffering from long-term sleep deprivation.
  • Alcohol and drugs. Even modest amounts of alcohol can have serious consequences for someone lacking sleep. Many prescription, over-the-counter and illegal drugs (allergy pills, tranquilizers, pain pills, muscle relaxants, marijuana, depressants, heroin and others) can contribute to sleepiness.
  • Sleep disorders. No matter how much people with sleep disorders seem to sleep they always feel sleepy. Sleep disorders such as sleep apnea or insomnia often go untreated because workers don’t realize the symptoms associated with the disorders. Anyone who suspects they have a sleep disorder should see a physician because sleep disorders are treatable.

Some people believe they can overcome sleep deprivation because they are young, have willpower, drink coffee, or take cold showers. Wrong. People also believe that all that is needed is some added sleep during the weekend and they will be fine, which is not true if they are suffering from a sleep disorder.

What Can an Employer Do?

Employers should take the initiative by educating managers and workers about sleep deprivation and fatigue. Workers may have heard of insomnia or sleep apnea but few know what these sleep disorders really are and even fewer know how the lack of sleep can affect their safety and job performance.

Sleep deprivation can encumber a worker’s ability to work safely by significantly reducing reaction time, motor skills, decision-making and awareness. Highly fatigued workers are 70 percent more likely to be involved in workplace accidents compared to workers with lower fatigue.
The NSF has compared the lack of sleep to drinking alcohol — one beer has the same impact on a person with 4 hours of sleep as 6 beers on a well-rested person. So, a worker who is sleep deprived due to a sleep disorder could be as dangerous behind the wheel or equipment controls as a worker who is under the influence.

Although sleep disorders are not hazards that are easily identified, they should be taken seriously. Remember it’s not just a matter of a worker losing a few hours of sleep now and then, it is pattern of sleeplessness that can affect an employee’s ability to think clearly and react quickly to a situation. It’s worth the time and effort to educate employees about sleep disorders throughout your organization. There are several organizations (listed below) that can provide information and training materials that companies can use to educate their employees. In addition, employers should advise workers to tell their doctors if they are experiencing the inability to get a good night sleep to see if they have a sleep disorder.


For more information, visit the following websites:

George Kennedy is NUCA’s vice president of safety.

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