10 Sleep Deprivation Hazards on the Worksite | OSHA 10

Learn 10 Dangers for Tired Workers

Workers in construction, manufacturing, operations and even healthcare are exposed to safety and health hazards on a daily basis—chemicals, ladders, fires and dangerous machinery can all cause serious injury. One of the most overlooked occupational hazards, however, is neither a machine nor a chemical. Sleep deprivation, according to the National Sleep Foundation, increases the likelihood of a workplace accident by 70%. The effects of fatigue have often been compared to the effects of alcohol, resulting in impaired judgment and poor performance.

The following issues can be avoided with proper knowledge and training of safety protocol through an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) training. Workers should know the signs of potential hazards and their rights in the workplace with regard to health and safety. Read on to learn more about how sleep deprivation affects your workplace and how to protect your own safety and well-being.

1. Improper Safety Enforcement and Major Injury

The physical nature of construction and general industry jobs requires workers to be focused and alert at all times. Human error is always possible, but sleep deprivation increases the likelihood of an accident and, in turn, a major injury or fatality. Many industrial disasters have been linked to sleep deprivation, including the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island nuclear accidents, as well as countless crashes in the transportation industry.

Famously, in 2005, OSHA fined oil titan, BP, a record-breaking $87 million for ignoring safety problems that led to an explosion at a Texas refinery. Escaping gas from an octane processing tower ignited, resulting in the death of 15 workers and the injury of 170 others. Though employer oversight harbored a dangerous work environment, investigations also found that some employees had worked 12 hours a day for nearly 30 days straight—a fact that may have impacted the way that the employees reacted and responded to the situation. OSHA.gov states that workers are 37% more likely to sustain an injury when working a 12-hour day. It is clear that employees at the Texas refinery were at a heightened risk.


2. Impaired Motor Skills

Fatigue is proven to instigate accidents, but how does it physically lead to error or injury? One of the ways that sleep deprivation creates an unsafe workplace is through its effect on motor skills. The journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (OEM) found that 17 to 19 hours without sleep can drop performance levels to the equivalent of a 0.05% blood alcohol level and cut response speeds in half. Much like someone who is intoxicated, a sleep-deprived worker will have poorer hand-eye coordination, depth perception and balance.

These effects on motor skills are especially dangerous for construction workers whose shifts are spent balancing on ladders or walking along scaffolding. Visual and depth perception should not be compromised. Falls are an ongoing problem in the construction industry, making up roughly one-third of all construction fatalities. In conjunction with safety gear and procedures, adequate sleep can play a major role in a construction worker’s ability to meet the physical demands of the job.

It is important that workers know their rights and employers emphasize the importance of sleep hygiene to their employees. Injuries, regardless of severity, can be avoided when safety training is required and regulations are enforced.

3. Poor Decision Making and Risk Taking

Much like alcohol’s impact on inhibitions, sleep deprivation can also alter a person’s judgment. Studies show that losing sleep can lead to riskier behavior, and furthermore, tired individuals lack an awareness of any deficits caused by fatigue. What does this mean exactly? It means that a tired worker in a manufacturing plant, construction site, healthcare facility or any general industry position may make impulsive decisions—and they won’t be aware of it. Perhaps precautionary procedures are skipped to speed up a task or Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is not worn simply due to discomfort.

As an employee in the construction industry or general industry, the decisions of one can affect the safety of all. In the healthcare industry, for example, an error caused by sleep deprivation can have serious consequences to patients. OSHA cites more errors in patient care and increased needlesticks and exposure to blood when sleep deprivation is involved. The long shifts and inconsistent sleep schedules noted in the healthcare industry are a serious safety and health concern.


4. Poor Memory and Information Processing

Learning new skills and procedures is part of the job, but being tired can make it difficult to focus and retain new information. Distractions, errors and impaired short-term memory can lead to costly mistakes and health and safety hazards.

Slow cognitive function is especially concerning in positions that require strong problem solving skills. Complex tasks in healthcare, for example, demand strong communication, memory and information processing to adequately deliver care to the patient. Energy or power plants demand operation workers’ full attention to keep track of multiple controls, and transportation workers may navigate and maneuver difficult terrain. There is more room for error in these potentially high-risk situations when workers are not as efficient and focused as possible.


5. Falling Asleep on the Job

In the event of sleep deprivation, it is not unheard of for a worker to fall asleep on the job. This is the worst case scenario, because any response to a potential hazard will be delayed or ignored completely as the worker naps. This was the case in the Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska in 1989. Third mate Gregory Cousins was asleep at the helm of a supertanker when it crashed and spilled over 250,000 barrels of crude oil. The crew had recently finished a 22-hour shift loading oil onto the vessel, and Cousins decided to take a cat nap. Unfortunately, it was too late by the time he attempted to turn the ship back into the shipping lanes.

Microsleeps are also a result of sleep deprivation, though they are sometimes unavoidable. Exhausted workers may try to stay awake, but their heads will drop and eyes will close unintentionally. For workers who perform repetitive or mundane tasks, including driving, the probability of falling into a microsleep is much higher. Unintentionally falling asleep at the wheel, before performing a medical procedure, or while working machinery can have severe consequences.

6. The Special Risk for Shift Workers

 Night shift and unusual shift workers who are at a higher risk of sleep deprivation should take even greater care to exercise healthy sleep habits and work with employers to avoid occupational health and safety hazards. In fact, fatigued workers are most susceptible to accidents between midnight and 8am, the time frame for many night shift workers. Night shift workers may find it more difficult to get on a regular sleep schedule or fall asleep while the sun is up, which can affect the ability to work while well-rested.

The Department of Labor states that there is no limit to the number of hours that one can work in a week. Therefore, nontraditional shifts have become a common occurrence in American culture. These long and sometimes rotating shifts pose a greater health concern than a traditional, eight-hour shift, and workers can mitigate health and safety hazards by learning to recognize their rights under OSHA, employer responsibilities, and the role of management in improving workplace culture for its employees.


7. Inability to Deal with Stress

Sleep deprivation has many physical consequences, but how does workplace fatigue affect workers emotionally? Getting less than the weekly recommended hours of sleep can have lasting effects on mood and stress levels. Fatigue can leave workers feeling irritated, depressed and even anxious, which can impact communication among colleagues and contribute to a more negative work environment. Unusual outbursts or disagreements may distract from the work at hand, leaving room for error or safety and health hazards. If lack of sleep affects mood, the energy and motivation to carry out responsibilities may be nonexistent.

Stress and emotional distress will also hurt quality of sleep. If workers experience anxiety or heightened levels of stress, high pressure operations can pose a greater risk. As stress grows, the quality of sleep decreases, continuing a sleep-stress cycle that leads to more long-term health issues and productivity issues in the workplace. This stress bleeds into personal life, and personal issues have been cited as a primary or secondary cause for industrial accidents. Finding ways to reduce stress, such as exercising, eating a healthy diet, and reducing financial worries through options like car and home warranties, can provide relief and peace of mind.


8. Sleep Deprivation Reduces Productivity

Each year, the US incurs a productivity loss of $136.4 billion as a result of sleep deprivation. These costs are associated with a number of issues, including reduced efficiency, high injury and worker compensation costs, and increasing absenteeism for illnesses related to fatigue. As work hours increase, output decreases and performance levels falter. Employers may lose the equivalent of days worth of work throughout the year as ensuing fatigue influences efficiency and overall health.

In the manufacturing industry, this decline in productivity and health is evidenced by decreased outputs and GDP. Machines, by comparison, take much longer to wear out than their human counterparts. This is a crucial fact to remember for employers, and health should be taken into consideration for its relationship with productivity.

9. Sleep Deprivation Impacts Workers in the Long-Term

The repercussions of sleep deprivation have lasting effects. OSHA training for construction and general industry focuses on physical health, such as signs of acute and chronic health issues and the effects of chemicals and other hazardous exposure in the workplace. It is equally important for employers to discuss the long-term health effects of proper sleep habits and hygiene, because this is often overlooked.

Illnesses caused by fatigue can be serious. Chronic sleep deprivation can lead to the following health problems:

  • Obesity
  • Worsening of diabetes and other disorders, such as epilepsy
  • Heart disease
  • Digestion and stomach problems
  • Depression
  • Certain cancers
  • Reproductive problems
  • Sleep disorders

Immunity is another factor in environments where employees—and patients in healthcare facilities—share close quarters. Fatigue lowers immunity against viruses, increasing the likelihood that a cold or flu will spread and cause absenteeism and an unhealthy environment for workers and, potentially, patients. Employers and workers have a responsibility to educate and implement good sleep habits to ensure a healthy workforce. When workers are unhealthy, they are more likely to take days off from work, make mistakes, experience injury and lose productivity.


10. Overlooking Signs of Fatigued Workers

Currently, there are no specific regulations on extended work shifts, but OSHA does emphasize the importance of monitoring health and safety in the workplace. Since exclusive laws do not exist regarding sleep deprivation and fatigue in the workplace, the need to discuss the issue is often ignored, and occupational health and safety hazards persist.

The Signs of Sleep Deprivation

We know the consequences of sleep deprivation, but what are the signs? There is a difference between being tired and being sleep deprived. While a tired worker may yawn or show signs of fatigue, signs of sleep deprivation can be more severe—though it is not always easy to tell the difference. Employers and other workers may notice these symptoms:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Complaints of headaches and body pain
  • Weariness
  • Giddiness
  • Mood swings or emotional outbursts
  • Sluggishness
  • Paranoia
  • Forgetfulness
  • Weight gain
  • Loss of balance or hand-eye coordination

If you or another individual is experiencing these symptoms, the employer should be notified so that appropriate changes can be made. Employers also have a responsibility to watch for symptoms of sleep deprivation in their employees.


Building Healthy Habits

There are multiple ways that workers can take control of their health and safety in the workplace and at home. According to Mattress Advisor, a leader in the sleep industry, construction workers and general industry workers can follow these helpful sleep tips:

  • Stick to a schedule and go to sleep at the same time every day.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol and nicotine.
  • Limit naps to make sure you are tired at bedtime.
  • Wind down before bed and eliminate electronic devices and noise.
  • Change your mattress if it is uncomfortable.

For more severe cases, it may be beneficial to see a healthcare professional about a possible sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea. Sleep disorders can lead to long-term health conditions and affect one’s ability to work.