Sleep Deprivation and Workplace Injuries

According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), the average working adult requires between seven and nine hours of sleep each night for optimal health. Unfortunately, 40% of Americans get less than seven hours of sleep each night. Gallup poll statistics reveal that Americans average only 6.8 hours of sleep, largely unchanged for the last few decades, but down more than an hour from 1942.

Sleep duration recommendations.

Sleep deprivation is associated with decreased productivity and lack of focus. Sleep seems to be a powerful weapon in the battle against stress, but the reverse is also true. The less sleep we get the more stress hormones are produced.  Smartphones bring the workplace home with us, and even into the bedroom. A recent Huffington Post article states that up to 72% of American workers polled said that they sleep with their smartphones next to their beds, and 45% send emails and texts often or always right before they fall asleep at night.

A large percentage of the population is going through the workday sleep deprived. Workers who have trouble focusing, or even staying awake, are at higher risk for injury. According to OSHA, over 100,000 crashes occur each year due to drowsy driving. On their website Drowsy, the NSF lists these specific at-risk groups for having a fall-asleep crash:

  • Young people: especially males under age 26.
  • Shift workers and people with long work hours: working the night shift increases your risk by nearly 6 times; rotating-shift workers and people working more than 60 hours a week need to be particularly careful.
  • Commercial drivers, especially long-haul drivers: at least 15% of all heavy truck crashes involve fatigue.
  • People with undiagnosed or untreated disorders: people with untreated obstructive sleep apnea have been shown to have up to a seven times increased risk of falling asleep at the wheel.
  • Business travelers who spend many hours driving or may be jet lagged.

But drivers and pilots are not the only workers who are at risk for sleep related injuries. Medical professionals like doctors and nurses are often working night shifts or extremely long hours. OSHA identified worker fatigue and long work hours to be likely contributing factors to the 2005 BP Texas City oil refinery explosion in which 15 workers were killed.

If you’ve found yourself feeling drowsy at work take a look at the following tips from the NSF for a better night’s sleep and a more productive, and safer, day at work:

  1. Stick to the same bedtime and wake up time, even on the weekends. This helps to regulate your body's clock and could help you fall asleep and stay asleep for the night.
  2. Practice a relaxing bedtime ritual. A relaxing, routine activity right before bedtime conducted away from bright lights helps separate your sleep time from activities that can cause excitement, stress or anxiety which can make it more difficult to fall asleep, get sound and deep sleep or remain asleep.
  3. Avoid naps, especially in the afternoon. Power napping may help you get through the day, but if you find that you can't fall asleep at bedtime, eliminating even short catnaps may help.
  4. Exercise daily. Vigorous exercise is best, but even light exercise is better than no activity. Exercise at any time of day, but not at the expense of your sleep.
  5. Evaluate your room. Design your sleep environment to establish the conditions you need for sleep. Your bedroom should be cool – 60-67 degrees. Your bedroom should also be free from any noise that can disturb your sleep. Finally, your bedroom should be free from any light. Consider using blackout curtains, eye shades, ear plugs, "white noise" machines, humidifiers, fans and other devices.
  6. Sleep on a comfortable mattress and pillows. Make sure your mattress is comfortable and supportive. The one you have been using for years may have exceeded its life expectancy.  Have comfortable pillows and make the room attractive and inviting for sleep but also free of allergens that might affect you. Avoid bright light in the evening and expose yourself to sunlight in the morning. This will keep your circadian rhythms in check.
  7. Avoid alcohol, cigarettes, and heavy meals in the evening. Alcohol, cigarettes and caffeine can disrupt sleep. Eating big or spicy meals can cause discomfort from indigestion that can make it hard to sleep. It is good to finish eating at least 2-3 hours before bedtime.
  8. Wind down. Your body needs time to shift into sleep mode, so spend the last hour before bed doing a calming activity such as reading. For some people, using an electronic device such as a laptop can make it hard to fall asleep, because the particular type of light emanating from the screens of these devices is activating to the brain.
  9. If you can't sleep, go into another room and do something relaxing until you feel tired. It is best to take work materials, computers and televisions out of the sleeping environment.