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Don't Close Your Eyes to Sleep Deprivation

June 4, 2018
In the old comic strip Li’l Abner, the title character’s job was mattress tester. He often hilariously went above and beyond the call in fulfilling his work duties.
But recent news articles about the risks posed to American workers by lack of sleep suggest that Li’l Abner might have been onto something.  
According to the National Sleep Foundation (, lack of sleep increases the likelihood of a workplace accident by 70 percent. And the journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (OEM) found that 17 to 19 hours without sleep can drop performance levels to the equivalent of a 0.05 percent blood-alcohol level (0.08 percent is legal standard for intoxication) and cut response speeds in half. Such an employee is likely to have poor hand-eye coordination, depth perception and balance.
These effects on motor skills are especially dangerous for workers whose jobs involve balancing on ladders or walking along scaffolding. Falls are a major problem in construction and other industries, making up roughly one-third of all construction fatalities. 
More than 60 percent of Americans report that their sleep needs aren’t met during the week. Yet sleep deprivation is frequently the cause of decreased productivity, accidents, incidents and mistakes that cost companies billions of dollars each year. 
There is no federally or state-imposed limit to the number of hours an employee may work in a week. Massachusetts law echoes the DOL. Therefore, non-traditional shifts have become a common occurrence in American culture. 
While there are no specific regulations on extended work shifts beyond the need to pay overtime after 40 hours a week, the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) emphasizes the importance of monitoring health and safety in the workplace. 
While this doesn’t mean you should adopt a policy of daily siesta, there are steps you can take to minimize the risk of sleep fatigue on your workplace.
First, know the symptoms. To help you identify and understand what sleep fatigue may look like in your workplace:
  • Communication: Tired workers are poor communicators. Signs may include pauses for long intervals without apparent reason; failure to enunciate or tendency to mumble; mispronunciations, slurring words, repeating, or losing his or her place in a sentence sequence.
  • Performance: Including decreased vigilance and slower response time. Sleep-deprived workers often have poor insight into their performance deficits. According to OSHA, the US experiences a productivity loss of $136.4 billion annually due to sleep deprivation. The reasons include reduced efficiency, high injury and workers-compensation costs, and increasing absenteeism for illnesses related to fatigue. As work hours increase, output decreases and performance levels falter.
  • Distraction: Sleep-deprived individuals often have trouble maintaining focus, developing and updating strategies, keeping track of events, maintaining interest in outcomes and attending to activities judged to be non-essential. Most jobs require workers to be focused and alert at all times. Sleep deprivation increases the likelihood of an accident and, in turn, a major injury or fatality. For example, in 2005, OSHA issued fines of $87 million to a refinery for ignoring safety problems that led to an explosion. OSHA Investigators found that some employees had worked 12 hours a day for nearly 30 days straight prior to the explosion. OSHA notes that workers are 37 percent more likely to sustain an injury when working a 12-hour day. 
  • Driving: Managers may be unaware that sleep-deprived workers are be dangerously operating machinery (e.g. forklifts or dump trucks). The greater an employee’s sleep deprivation, the greater the potential risk of an accident, a workers compensation claim, or an accident involving a customer.  
  • Errors: Sleep-related errors are especially concerning in patient care, including increased needlesticks and exposure to blood. The long shifts and inconsistent sleep schedules in the health-care industry are a serious safety and health concern.
  • Memory: Short-term and working memory problems may result in a decreased ability to develop and update strategies based on new information, along with the ability to remember event sequencing.

  • Inappropriate behavior: It could be yelling, confrontation, immature behavior, threatened violence or some other unexpected behavior. Any one of these could be enough to disrupt the harmony of the workplace and lead to a long day for HR. 
  • High-risk behavior:  Sleep deprivation appears to raise a person’s expectation of positive outcomes while lowering the ability to see the negative ones. This may lead to your employees taking high-risk gambles without thinking the issue through. 
  • Unable to recognize the need to make adjustments: An alert and well-rested employee can make well thought-out decisions. Flexible thinking, updating strategies based on new information, and innovation may suffer due to sleep deprivation. 
  • Worsens over time: 
The more nights without sleep, the more the risk adds up. A single night of total sleep deprivation can affect a person’s ability to function well for up to two weeks.
  • Sleeping on the job: This is the worst-case scenario, because any response to a potential hazard will be delayed or ignored as the worker dozes. For example, the Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska occurred when the third mate was asleep at the helm of a supertanker when it crashed and spilled more than 250,000 barrels of crude oil. The crew had recently finished a 22-hour shift loading oil onto the vessel and the mate took a cat nap. When he awoke, it was too late to save the situation. Quick naps are a problem in many jobs. For workers who perform repetitive or mundane tasks, including driving, the probability of falling into a short nap is much higher. Unintentionally falling asleep at the wheel, before performing any complex procedure, or while working machinery can have severe consequences.
  • Shift Workers: Night-shift and off-hours shift workers are often at risk of sleep deprivation. Fatigued workers are most susceptible to accidents between midnight and 8 am. Night-shift workers may find it more difficult to get on a regular sleep schedule or fall asleep while the sun is up, which can affect the ability to work while well-rested.
Other sleep-related health problems that may affect your employees, and their health include: 
  • Obesity
  • Worsening of diabetes and other disorders, such as epilepsy
  • Heart disease
  • Digestion and stomach problems
  • Depression
  • Certain cancers
  • Sleep disorders
  • Reduced immunity for employees, customers as fatigued workers share close quarters
Being tired and being sleep deprived are not the same. While a tired worker may yawn or show signs of fatigue, signs of sleep deprivation can be more severe—though it is not always easy to tell the difference. Employers and other workers may notice these symptoms:
  • Loss of appetite
  • Complaints of headaches and body pain
  • Weariness
  • Giddiness
  • Mood swings or emotional outbursts
  • Sluggishness
  • Paranoia
  • Forgetfulness
  • Weight gain
  • Loss of balance or hand-eye coordination
If you or another individual is experiencing these symptoms, notify a manager so that appropriate action may be taken. Changes may include schedule, shift, responsibilities, taking a day off, or other possible remedy.
Given the severity of the risk of sleep deprivation, employers should try to identify resources and remedies. 
  • Your workers compensation carrier
  • Your health plan
  • Track injury patterns via your OSHA injury reports
  • OSHA Web site
  • National Sleep Foundation
  • Observations of your supervisors and employees
  • Encourage employees to take their vacation and relax.
  • Carefully monitor employee overtime to minimize its impact
  • Allocate overtime across all eligible employees instead of just a few.
  • Establish and implement a workplace wellness plan
  • Encourage healthy habits
In an ever-tightening labor market, employers are likely to encounter overly tired employees. Determining how to recognize the issue and being prepared to deal with it are crucial. 
Please call the AIM Employer Hotline at 800-470-6277 if you have any questions about this or any other HR-related matter. 
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