Sleep Deprivation & Occupational Safety – Experts Interviewed by ASSE

In this article, published by the American Society of Safety Engineers, Nancy Grugle and Ron Schaible were interviewed on the topic of sleep deprivation, shift work, and occupational safety. The article discusses the nature of sleep deprivation in workplace settings, why it is a problem, and steps that employers should take to reduce sleep deprivation and promote safety.

Sleep Deprivation & Occupational Safety

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PS: Describe your background in OSH.

Nancy: I am a human factors expert at Robson Forensic Inc. My specialty is looking at the effects of sleep deprivation, fatigue and shift work on human performance, whether it be applied to driving a car or working in a factory. I have conducted research on sleep deprivation at a government research lab, and I applied my research specifically to operations in the military where people are working exceptionally long hours, sometimes days at a time.

Ron: I am a consultant with Robson Forensics and provide expert witness services (litigation). I have about 40 years’ experience in OSH, including commercial insurance, loss prevention, private industry and consulting. I have been an ASSE member for many years.

PS: Explain the relationship between sleep deprivation and shift work.

Nancy: Shift work, which includes working during the night or overnight, throws off the body’s internal biological clock or circadian rhythm. The effect of throwing off your biological clock is that you do not get enough sleep and enough quality sleep. When you suffer from sleep deprivation, you have an increase of sleepiness on the job, performance decrements and a significant increase of workplace incidents.

Research shows that shift workers get much less sleep than day-shift workers. For example, rotating shift workers get an average of 1 to 4 hours less sleep than day workers. Risk is highest when the night-shift workers are getting insufficient or poor sleep while also working long hours. For example, if someone is working more than 10 hours a day, you get a combined effect that significantly increases the incident risk.

PS: What does circadian rhythm have to do with shift work and sleep deprivation?

Nancy: There is a conflict or mismatch between the body’s internal biological clock and an employee’s work schedule. And, that is thought to be the primary cause of shift-work induced sleepiness or sleep loss. Circadian rhythm is essentially our biological clock that regulates when we are awake and when we are asleep. It tells us to be awake during the day and to be asleep at night, but shift work requires you to be awake when your body is telling you to be asleep or you are trying to sleep when your body is telling you to be awake. That conflict creates a problem.

PS: Who is responsible for ensuring that sleep deprivation is not a workplace safety issue?

Ron: Management has a responsibility for workplace safety and this falls under that. Management needs to schedule work shifts with proper staffing and limit the use of nontraditional work shifts. But where nontraditional work shifts are necessary, management should consider scheduling additional break periods and meals for worker rest and replenishment. Management should schedule tasks that require heavy labor and intense concentration at the beginning of the shift, which is better than at the end of the shift.

One safety tenet is engineering controls first and foremost wherever possible. These would include engineering more efficient operations using automation and modern equipment, minimizing ergonomic risks to minimize force posture and repetitions. Another intervention is providing training in subjects such as hazards of working fatigue, sleep and fatigue basics, signs and symptoms of fatigue, tips for improving sleep and alertness, and avoiding injuries of muscles and joints.

PS: How can employers ensure that workers are not sleep deprived?

Ron: Employers should properly train supervisors to recognize signs and symptoms of the potential health effects associated with extended or unusual work shifts or fatigue. If an employee is showing signs and symptoms, have the person evaluated and possibly directed to leave the work area and seek rest. Try to limit extended shifts to no more than a few days, especially if there is heavy physical exertion or mental exertion. And, implement employee awareness programs and wellness initiatives that address sleep deprivation.

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