With people sleeping an average of one-and-a-half hours less than people did a century ago, sleep deprivation has become a wide-ranging health problem in the United States. Workers are getting less sleep than they should, and may not realize how tired they are as they go to work.
Without enough sleep, employees have a reduced ability to recognize or avoid risks. From injuries and accidents to errors in judgment, sleep deprivation creates an occupational hazard.
Decreased daytime alertness, slower reaction time, impaired memory and cognitive ability, mood changes, and a weakened immune system are additional symptoms an employee with sleep deprivation may experience.
Missing one night's sleep may make employees clumsy and irritable during the next day. After missing two night's sleep, workers may have problems concentrating and make mistakes on normal tasks. People who get just a few hours of sleep every night start to accumulate a "sleep debt" and over time can experience many of the same problems as missing one or more nights of sleep. Employees with long-term sleep deprivation can experience heart failure, heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure, psychiatric problems, obesity and even an increased mortality risk.
Sleep deprivation in the workplace leads to accidents, errors, poor concentration, injuries, and fatalities--all creating possible future workers' comp claims. Workers with sleep deprivation have a poorer safety record and can influence the frequency and severity of accidents, resulting in higher workers' compensation costs for the employer.
IN THE EMPLOYERS' CONTROL
With the instability of the economy, companies may be tempted to cut costs by using fewer workers to do the same amount of work. This strategy, however, will most likely cost companies more in the long run. The risk of injuries and accidents will increase while the workers' quantity and quality of work will be reduced.
Although employees' sleep habits are largely out of the employers' control, employers need to be aware of the effects of sleep deprivation and make adjustments so that job tasks are safely and efficiently performed. Such steps include dealing with:
-- Ergonomics: Employers can focus on the ergonomics and design of the workspace to alleviate work-related risk factors. Good lighting and ventilation can help fight fatigue.
-- Extended Shifts: Employers should not maintain or allow extended shifts for more than a few days, especially for heavy physical or mental jobs. Switching employees to a regular daytime schedule can resolve the issue, but when this is not an option, employers can limit extended shifts and provide employees with "microbreaks" throughout the longer work shift (in addition to formal breaks).
-- Shift Workers: Shift workers are often employed in the most dangerous of jobs (such as emergency medical services, truck drivers, firefighting, law enforcement and security) and are especially vulnerable to sleep deprivation. If possible, employers can make sure their employees work together or have some form of contact with one another to help keep them alert.
According to the International Classifications of Sleep Disorders, shift workers are also at an increased risk for a variety of chronic illnesses, such as gastrointestinal and cardiovascular diseases. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) also found that shift workers are at a higher risk for cancer than other workers. Realizing that more research is needed, the IARC (an agency of the World Health Organization) said that shift work should still be classified as "probably or possibly carcinogenic." Although night shifts may never be eliminated, these findings should be given thought by both employees and employers.
-- Task Assignment: By evaluating their workforce, employers can assign tasks to optimize safety and performance.
-- Training: Employers should provide health and safety training to teach their employees the effects of inadequate sleep and the results of fatigue on the job.
Sleep deprivation can affect more than the individual employee. Fatigued workers put all of us at risk--from when we drive next to them on the highway to when we use products they helped manufacture. By taking steps to improve employees' work and sleep habits, employers have a better chance of increasing productivity while lowering workplace accidents and possibly their overall workers' compensation costs.
MARK NOONAN is a managing principal and the senior knowledge manager for workers' compensation for the Casualty Practice within Integro Insurance Brokers.
Read more at the WorkersComp Forum homepage.
December 1, 2010
Copyright 2010© LRP Publications