The Link Between Sleep and Workplace Safety

Chernobyl.

Three Mile Island.

The Challenger Explosion.

Exxon Valdez.

What do these things have in common? Beyond being some of the worst accidents on record, they are all incidents that were caused, in some part, by sleep deprivation, fatigue and the negative consequences that come along with it.

sleep fatigue and workplace accidents

Unfortunately, these are not isolated incidents either, but things that play out (typically on a smaller scale) every day. Fatigue in the workplace is of particular concern for shift workers, night workers, drivers, and people who work extended hours, are on call, or have a rotating shift schedule. As the circadian rhythm becomes disrupted, so too can the length and quality of sleep, and this has drastic consequences for workplace safety.

3 Ways Sleep Fatigue Impacts Workplace Safety

Lack of sleep affects safety by impairing brain functioning, a serious issue considering that exhaustion is among the most common health complaints of Canadian workers. Here are some of the ways fatigue plays out on the job:

1. Decreased Alertness and Attention

Sleepiness can make it harder to focus and more likely to be distracted. This is particularly problematic for jobs that require precision and attention to detail. For example, one of the contributing factors of the nuclear disaster at the Three Mile Island was the fact that shift workers failed to notice that the plant was losing coolant.

2. Increased Reaction Time

Just like alcohol, fatigue can affect reaction time as we take longer to process the situation and thus longer to respond to it. This can be an issue for any type of work but is especially troublesome for those driving machinery: cars, trucks, forklifts, cranes, etc. Studies suggest that fatigue is a factor in up to 21 percent of motor vehicle collisions, causing 400 deaths in Canada and 800 deaths in the United States each year.

accidents due to sleep fatigue

3. Decreased Cognitive Functioning

Researchers studying the effects of sleep deprivation monitor brain activity using an electroencephalogram, or EEG. These pictures of the brain reveal that lack of sleep results in diminished cognitive functioning in areas such as concentration, memory, logical reasoning, and decision making. The prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for many higher-level cognitive functions, is particularly vulnerable. As doctors typically perform shift work, decreased cognitive functioning and alertness may help explain the thousands of deaths each year in Canada and the United States that are caused by preventable medical errors.

Protecting Your Workers with a Fatigue Management Plan

As we have become a society that is ‘always on,’ the prevalence of shift work has increased.

  • Factories run around the clock to deliver more products and operate multi-million dollar machinery to capacity.
  • Doctors and nurses, as well as law, fire and emergency personnel, must be ready to serve patients and citizens 24/7.
  • Facilities such as prisons, hotels, and nursing homes require 24-hour
  • To deliver the best customer service, grocery stores, convenience stores, and call centers are often open round the clock.

Shift work spans all socioeconomic levels and is found in blue and white collar jobs alike…and all of these jobs can be impacted by sleep deprivation and fatigue. According to Harvard’s Division of Sleep Medicine, “The evidence is clear that a lack of sleep leads to poor performance.” And one thing is certain: simply telling employees that they should get more sleep will not solve the problem.

workplace fatigue

Instead, proactive employers should design a comprehensive fatigue management plan to identify, assess and control the risk factors associated with fatigue in order to promote workplace safety. One of the most important components of the fatigue management plan is fatigue awareness training; in fact, the Canada Safety Council recommends sleep-safety training as one of the primary ways employers can protect their workers.

Does your company or organization have a fatigue management plan set up, and does it include training and education about fatigue in the workplace? Get started today by exploring our Corporate Sleep Solutions.

As the President and Founder of Sleepwell Consulting Inc. Amanda is a Sleep Educator who works with companies of all sizes to help promote better sleep and better business.