The Many Dangers of Sleep Deprivation

Tracy Morgan made his return to the public eye last Saturday with his hosting duties on Saturday Night Live. Morgan was badly injured in a car accident in the summer of 2014 and the cause of the accident was a truck driver who had been awake for over 24 hours. This is only one of the thousands of incidents that highlight the danger of sleep depravation. 

Insufficient sleep is a public health epidemic, declared the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January, 2014. Plenty of evidence exists to back up the CDC’s warning.

• Harvard Medical School researchers surveyed more than 10,000 people in the U.S. in 2012, and found that insomnia is responsible for 274,000 workplace accidents and errors each year, totaling $31 billion in costs.

•50 to 70 million U.S. adults have sleep or wakefulness disorders, according to the National Institutes of Health.

•The CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey in 2009 determined that among 74,571 adults in 12 states, 35.3 percent reported fewer than seven hours of sleep during a typical 24-hour period.  48 percent reported snoring; 37.9 percent reported unintentionally falling asleep during the day at least once in the past month; and 4.7 percent reported nodding off or falling asleep while driving at least once in the preceding month.

•A 2008 poll by the National Sleep Foundation estimated that almost one in three U.S. employees report that daytime sleepiness interferes with their work at least a few times per week.

Despite these statistics, medical experts say that sleeplessness is under-researched. There are more studies being done on how sleeplessness causes sick days, than what actually happens when sleep-deprived employees go to work.

“Sleep is not on the radar screen of most primary-care providers,” according to the magazine Medical Economics.

As an employer, are you keeping it on your radar?

Safety-related risks of fatigue, too little sleep, and sleep apnea are on the radar of the Department of Transportation (DOT).  The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) estimates that 28 percent of commercial driver-license holders suffer from some form of sleep apnea, a sleep disorder characterized by repeated airway obstruction and pauses in breathing. You wake up feeling tired, and unaware that hundreds of times during the night your breathing had briefly been disrupted. According to the National Institutes of Health, 12-18 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea— and most go undiagnosed and untreated.

This year, the FAA drafted a revised policy requiring pilots who are identified by an aviation medical examiner as being at risk for obstructive sleep apnea to undergo screening by a qualified doctor within 90 days. This is a change to the original policy, which required any pilot with a body mass index (BMI) above 40 to be denied medical clearance until successfully completing sleep apnea screening. In fact, being overweight is one characteristic of sleep apnea sufferers (as is loud, persistent snoring), but there are a number of risk factors that should be assessed.  In addition, some people with a BMI of under 30 suffer from sleep apnea as well.

Regulators certainly have cause for concern. In today’s fast-paced, competitive economy, functioning on less sleep is a badge of honor. Many employees falsely believe they become acclimated and will eventually get used to sleep deprivation.

The effects of employees getting too little sleep results in a frightening list of safety risks that employers should not allow to go unchecked. Overly tired employees may not realize they are in the “line of fire” of in-plant vehicular traffic, robotic machinery, or moving overhead loads. They may misjudge distances, machinery cycles, weights to be lifted, and the stability of trenches. They may put on personal protective equipment (PPE) incorrectly, not adjust the fit of a respirator face piece or fall-protection harness, or they may forget to wear PPE altogether.

If you suspect that some of your employees are at risk of accidents and injuries, or worse, due to sleep problems and fatigue, you do have some options.  Employee education regarding the factors that can negatively impact an individual’s sleep cycle could be a good start, especially for shift workers or safety-sensitive employees.  This should include the signs, symptoms, and risks of sleep apnea.  If your company has required medical exams, the examiner should be asking questions to assess the risk.  High risk individuals can seek further evaluation through a sleep study administered by a certified sleep physician.  Also called polysomnograms, use of this diagnostic test has increased fourfold in recent years, according to Medical Economics, from 75,000 sleep studies performed in 1997, to more than 300,000 in 2009. There are now some types of equipment that can be used to evaluate sleep patterns at home instead of in a sleep lab. 

Positive answers to these questions provided by the National Sleep Foundation could identify employees who might benefit from a sleep evaluation:

  • Do you regularly have difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep?
  • Do you have a problem with snoring? Has anyone ever told you that you have pauses in breathing or that you gasp for breath when you sleep?
  • Are your legs “active” at night? Do you experience tingling, creeping, itching, pulling, aching or other strange feelings in your legs while sitting or lying down that cause a strong urge to move, walk or kick your legs for relief?
  • Are you so tired when you wake up in the morning that you cannot function normally during the day?
  • Does sleepiness and fatigue persist for more than two to three weeks?

A sleep evaluation and appropriate treatment, if medically indicated, could remove your sleep-deprived employees from harm’s way, reduce absenteeism as well as your company’s injury and accident rates, and improve productivity and quality.

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