The Dangerous Effects of Sleep Deprivation

You have likely heard that most people need seven to nine hours of sleep each night to wake up rested and functioning properly. However, are you also aware of the dangers involved when people don’t get enough sleep? If you or a loved one has been a victim of someone else’s lack of sleep then you know how severe the injuries can be. To discuss your potential recovery options, speak with a personal injury attorney or you can find your type of incident in an attorneys practice area resource to learn more.

According to a press release from the New York Department of Motor Vehicles, fatigue and drowsy driving were listed as contributing factors in car accidents across the state more than 5,000 times in one recent year, and nationally, nearly 800 people died in one year due to accidents that involved a fatigued driver.

Drowsiness does not just impact people when they are on the road, either. A study conducted by Ball State University revealed that one-third of the adult workers in the United States get less than seven hours of sleep each night and that this number has increased dramatically for both male and female workers. Researchers noted that fatigue is associated with mental and physical health problems that can range from mild to severe, as well as injury, loss of productivity, and premature mortality.

Which Industries Feature the Most Sleep-Deprived Workers?

Each day in the United States, fatigued workers clock in at jobs across all industries. Some industries and some jobs are more likely to produce fatigued workers than others, however, including those that involve night shifts or extended shifts. The publication, Facility Executive, reports that 82 percent of employers think that fatigue is a workplace safety issue, including nearly all manufacturing employers.

Some of the industries where workers are most prone to fatigue, as noted in the Ball University study, include:

  • Police and military professionals (50 percent)
  • Health care support (45 percent)
  • Transport and material moving (41 percent)
  • Production occupations (41 percent)

The percentage of female workers in the U.S. who report getting less than seven hours of sleep a night was 38.8 percent in 2018, up from 31.2 percent in 2010. Male workers who report getting less than seven hours of sleep a night increased from 30.5 percent in 2010 to 35.5 percent in 2018. Sleep deficiency in African American workers increased from 40.6 to 46.5 percent from 2010 to 2018, while the numbers for Asian Americans increased from 29.5 to 35.3 percent. For Caucasian workers, the increase from 2010 to 2018 was 29.2 to 34.1 percent.

Many regulatory agencies have strict guidelines in place as to the hours that a worker can work. Some examples of this are:

  • The Department of Veterans Affairs, which limits the hours that can be worked by nurses providing direct care to shifts no longer than 12 hours and no more than 60 hours in any seven-day period, unless the nurse is providing emergency care.
  • The Federal Aviation Administration, which places limits on the hours that flight crew members can work.
  • The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates the hours that those driving commercial trucks may drive before taking a break or having off-duty time.
  • The Federal Railroad Administration, which limits the hours of rail workers.
  • The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which regulates the hours worked by employees at nuclear facilities.

Dangers of Fatigue in the Workplace

In the months leading up to the ill-fated launch of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, contract employees at Kennedy Space Center were reportedly working 72-hour weeks with frequent 12-hour shifts to accommodate a rigorous NASA schedule that envisioned 24 space missions a year from 1987 forward. However, the attempted launch of Mission 61C failed due to mistakes by workers that led to a serious incident involving liquid oxygen depletion less than five minutes before the scheduled take-off. Many believe that the mistakes were the result of worker fatigue.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), worker fatigue increases the risk of illness and injuries. The human body has a natural, instinctive sleep/wake cycle, known as the circadian rhythm, which—for most people—is programmed to sleep during the night hours. The likeliness of a workplace illness or injury is 18 percent higher for evening shift workers, and 30 percent higher for night shift workers, than those who work during the day.

Some of the symptoms of fatigue in workers include:

  • Giddiness
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Loss of muscle coordination
  • Greater distractibility
  • Lack of motivation
  • Failure to follow safety protocols
  • Diminished alertness, concentration, or memory

The impacts of diminished alertness due to worker fatigue have resulted in huge disasters, including:

  • The 2005 Texas City BP oil refinery explosion
  • The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill
  • The 2009 Colgan air crash
  • The Space Shuttle Challenger explosion
  • Nuclear disasters at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island

In addition to creating opportunities for injury due to a worker’s diminished alertness, routinely being deprived of a full night’s rest may also increase an individual’s likelihood of acquiring illnesses, such as:

  • Heart disease
  • Stomach and digestive problems
  • Musculoskeletal disorders
  • Reproductive issues
  • Depression
  • Some types of cancers, including breast and prostate
  • Sleep disorders
  • Obesity
  • Worsening of existing disorders, including epilepsy and diabetes

OSHA reports that the direct and indirect costs due to lost productivity, injury, and illness—as well as increased workers’ compensation costs related to worker fatigue—are approximately $136.4 billion a year.

Dangers of Worker Fatigue on the Road

A semi-truck driver died in Queensbury, New York, after he crashed into another tractor-trailer in the early morning hours on the Northway. The accident occurred after the driver of the other truck allegedly fell asleep behind the wheel. When the truck driver fell asleep, his truck drifted off the eastern shoulder of the roadway and struck a guardrail. The truck then rolled over onto its side in the right lane of the roadway. The driver, who was uninjured in the crash, exited the vehicle and was on the side of the roadway when another tractor-trailer approached and could not stop in time to avoid colliding with the overturned truck. The collision caused a fire and resulted in the death of the driver of the second truck.

Worker fatigue does not just pose hazards in the workplace. It also creates danger on the roadway, as these drowsy workers head home or drive as part of their jobs. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that there are about 91,000 police-reported crashes that involve drowsy driving each year, leaving around 500,000 people injured and nearly 800 dead. Drowsy-driving crashes generally occur between midnight and 6 am, or in the afternoon. Both of these times are known for causing dips in an individual’s circadian rhythm.

Fatigued driving crashes most frequently occur when a single vehicle, containing only a driver and no passengers, runs off the road without any sign of braking or any evidence of a hazard on the roadway that may have contributed to the accident. This type of crash most often occurs on rural roadways or highways.

Drowsiness when driving causes hazards, such as:

  • A reduction in a driver’s ability to concentrate on the road
  • A slower reaction time if the driver needs to brake or steer suddenly
  • A reduction in the ability to make good decisions
  • A microsleep, which is a short period of sleep, usually lasting a few seconds. In this short time, if traveling at highway speeds, a vehicle can travel up to the length of a football field with a sleeping driver behind the wheel.

The effect of 20 hours without sleep is similar to the effect of driving with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent, which is considered legally intoxicated.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that a survey of 150,000 people found that 4 percent had fallen asleep behind the wheel at least once in the last 30 days before the survey, and 40 percent of drivers confessed to falling asleep behind the wheel at least once since obtaining their drivers’ licenses. Those who are most at risk of drowsy driving include commercial drivers who operate vehicles—such as tow trucks or buses, those performing shift work, drivers who have undiagnosed sleep disorders, and drivers who are on medications that may cause them to be drowsy.

Some of the symptoms of fatigue when driving include:

  • Yawning or blinking frequently
  • Having a hard time remembering the last few miles driven
  • Missing an exit, hitting the rumble lane on the side of the road, or drifting into another lane of travel
  • Difficulty maintaining your speed

When Getting Seven Hours Isn’t Enough

Sleep Deprivation InjuriesWorkers who are getting at least seven hours of sleep each night, but are still waking up feeling tired, may want to consider being evaluated for sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a serious breathing disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep.

Symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  • Loud snoring
  • Gasping for air during sleep
  • Difficulty staying asleep
  • Regularly waking up with a dry mouth or a headache
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness, irritability, and difficulty concentrating
  • Episodes during sleep in which others notice that the sufferer has stopped breathing for a short period of time

Sleep apnea is associated with dangerous complications, including:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart problems and a risk of a recurrent heart attack, stroke, or irregular heartbeats
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Liver problems
  • Partners who are sleep-deprived due to loud snoring

While sleep apnea can happen to anyone, even children, certain risk factors increase the likelihood of developing this condition, such as:

  • Obesity
  • A thicker neck circumference, which generally causes a narrower airway
  • Being male—males are two to three times more likely than females to have this condition
  • Being older
  • A family history of sleep apnea
  • Use of alcohol, sedatives, or tranquilizers
  • Smoking, which increases one’s chances of having sleep apnea by three times due to inflammation and fluid retention in the upper airway
  • Nasal congestion
  • Having had a stroke or heart failure

What Employers Can Do to Reduce Workplace Fatigue

In accordance with the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers have the legal responsibility to manage their workplaces in a way that avoids worker fatigue. Some of the ways this can be accomplished, according to OSHA, include:

  • Examining and addressing issues like workload, work hours, understaffing, and scheduled or unscheduled worker absences that may contribute to worker fatigue.
  • Minimizing overtime, particularly forced overtime and avoiding permanent placement of workers on night shifts, or avoiding placement on night shifts for several consecutive nights.
  • Providing workers with flexible start and stop times, if possible, so they can choose the hours that work best for them.
  • Arranging schedules so that workers have regular breaks and the opportunity for nighttime sleep.
  • Scheduling the most demanding work or the work that requires the most focus in the first half of the shift, when the workers are the most alert.
  • Adjusting the working environment through lighting, temperature, and physical surroundings to encourage alertness.
  • Providing worker education on topics such as fatigue and its impacts on health and relationships, the safety issues surrounding workplace fatigue, and the importance of other healthy lifestyle choices, such as diet and exercise.
  • Developing a fatigue risk management plan that analyzes the risks that fatigue poses to the safety of workers at that specific location, as well as ways to manage and mitigate those risks; an employee reporting program; incident investigation; training for workers and their families; and a method of external and internal auditing of fatigue risks.

While these tasks seem difficult, many employers find that addressing the risks associated with fatigue along with other workplace safety issues allows them to seamlessly fold fatigue management into their existing risk management efforts. Additionally, employers who focus on managing the fatigue of employees stand to benefit from:

  • A reduction in absenteeism and tardiness
  • A reduction in incidents and errors
  • A decrease in unethical or unprofessional behavior in the workplace
  • A reduction in the time it takes to complete a task
  • Increased employee engagement

Did Someone Else’s Fatigue Cause Your Injuries?

If you suffered a preventable injury that someone else’s fatigue caused, you may qualify for compensation through a personal injury lawsuit. Let a personal injury lawyer help you understand your legal options, answer your questions, and determine if you have a strong case.

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