Sleep Deprivation Can Affect Safety
Posted: Aug 22, 2014
By Renee Witherspoon, MS, CSP, CIH, CHMM, South Plains Chapter President
Many of us know that we need to get an adequate amount of sleep every night but how many of us actually do? Work, school, or family responsibilities can cause stress throughout our day so that we end up missing sleep. And many would say that sleep is just “down time” when the body rests, but in reality, it is so much more than that and can have a huge impact on safety and our day-to-day lives.
Consequences of Sleep Deprivation
Shift workers or people having to work a “graveyard shift” are often tired and sleepy because of their work schedule. If workers are overly tired then concentration on their work can be difficult. There is also the possibility of decreased reaction times, increased moodiness, and impaired judgment. All which can lead to the possibilities of accidents.
Sleep deprivation and fatigue has been shown to have serious consequences and be the root cause of some of the largest disasters in recent history including the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in 1979, the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986 and recently in 2013, a commuter train derailed killing four people because the train engineer had fallen asleep at the controls when the train was going 82 mph into a 30 mph curve. Reports stated that he had navigated the route many times but was on the early shift only a few weeks.
Sleep deprivation can also affect our daily lives. Besides the increased risk of occupational injury, studies have shown that sleep deprivation and fatigue can have dramatic effects on personal health including:
- Decreased Performance and Alertness: Reducing nighttime sleep by as little as one and a half hours for just one night could result in a reduction of daytime alertness by as much as 32%.
- Memory and Cognitive Impairment: Decreased alertness and excessive daytime sleepiness impair memory and your ability to think and process information.
- Stress Relationships: Disruption of a bed partner’s sleep due to a sleep disorder may cause significant problems for the relationship (for example, separate bedrooms, conflicts, moodiness, etc.).
- Poor Quality of Life: As an example, being unable to participate in certain activities that require sustained attention, like going to the movies, attending your child’s school event, or watching a favorite TV show.
- Automobile Injury: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that each year drowsy driving is responsible for at least 100,000 automobile crashes, 71,000 injuries, and 1,550 fatalities.
There is no questioning the importance of getting enough sleep. But the lack of awareness of sleep deprivation is an important safety topic that is seldom discussed in meetings but needs to be. As mentioned, sleep deprivation can increase the danger in the workplace but many workers suffering from it are not even aware of the risks. They may think they are functioning well enough but they are susceptible to falling into a potentially deadly form of sleep, called “microsleep.”
Microsleep is brief, unintended episodes of loss of attention associated with events such as blank stare, head snapping, and prolonged eye closure which may occur when a person is fatigued but trying to stay awake to perform a monotonous task like driving a vehicle or watching a computer screen. If you’ve ever driven somewhere and not remembered part of the trip, you may have experienced microsleep. One wrong move or lack of attention or alertness can cause a serious accident. So it is important that we in the safety community recognize the warning signs of sleep deprivation so that we can prevent accidents.
Warning Signs of Sleep Deprivation
The following are the warning signs to watch for if you are not getting enough sleep:
- You’re more impulsive.
- You’re forgetful.
- You’re hungrier.
- You’re clumsier.
- You’re arguing more with your significant other.
If you find that you are sleep deprived—you know what to do.
Recommendations For Getting a Good Night’s Sleep
Sleep requirements vary across the age groups but according to the National Sleep Foundation, adults require 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Senior adults tend to sleep more lightly and may wake up more often during the night because they may have more medical problems, which affect quality sleep and can lead to daytime napping.
Like eating well and being physically fit, getting a good night’s sleep is important to your well-being. Here are some tips:
- Avoid caffeine and nicotine. The stimulating effects of caffeine in coffee, colas, teas, and chocolate can take as long as 8 hours to wear off fully. Nicotine is also a stimulant.
- Stick to a sleep schedule. Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day—even on the weekends.
- Exercise is great but not too late in the day. Avoid exercising closer than 5 or 6 hours before bedtime.
- Avoid alcoholic drinks before bed. A “nightcap” might help you get to sleep, but alcohol keeps you in the lighter stages of sleep. You also tend to wake up in the middle of the night when the sedating effects have worn off.
- Avoid large meals and beverages late at night. A large meal can cause indigestion that may interfere with sleep. Drinking too many fluids at night can cause you to awaken frequently to run to the bathroom.
- Avoid medicines that delay or disrupt your sleep, if possible. Some commonly prescribed heart, blood pressure, or asthma medications, as well as some over-the-counter and herbal remedies for coughs, colds, or allergies, can disrupt sleep patterns.
Sleep will always be important for overall health and wellness and studies have shown that having a good night’s sleep improves memory, alertness, decreases stress, and the risk of accidents on the job. Lack of sleep can even affect even our interpretation of events. This will affect our ability to make sound judgments because we may not assess potentially dangerous situations accurately and act on them correctly.
These positive health benefits equate to employees being happier, safer, and more productive. The challenge is to get employees to realize the importance of getting enough sleep and how getting an adequate amount of sleep can have a positive impact not only in their lives but in the lives of those around them.
- Breus, Michael. Sleep Habits: More Important Than You Think: Chronic Sleep Deprivation May Harm Health, WebMD. Accessed 8/7/14.
- Harris, Phil. “Warning Signs that you’re Not Getting Enough Sleep”, K104.7FM. Accessed 7/9/14.
- How Much Sleep Do We Really Need? National Sleep Foundation. Accessed 7/9/14.
- Why is Sleep Important? National Heart, Lunch and Blood Institute, US Dept. Of Health & Human Services. Accessed 7/9/14.
- Your Guide to Healthy Sleep. NHLBI Health Information Center. Accessed 7/9/14.