Sleep Deprivation: An Unseen Hazard in the Workplace

By Gina Wynn

Employers take care to make sure workers are protected from exposure to dangerous chemicals, contagious illnesses, machinery, heights, and falling objects. But in fields like construction, healthcare, manufacturing, and operations, there is another danger that is often underestimated and left unaddressed: sleep deprivation.

Lack of sleep can result in impaired judgment, poor performance, and loss of coordination; similar to the effects of alcohol. Sleep deprivation increases the likelihood of a workplace accident by 70 percent, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

Unthinkable Consequences

The National Center for Biotechnology Information has cited several extreme examples. The near meltdown of the Pennsylvania Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in 1979 was attributed to an error by shift workers managing the control room from 4 to 6 a.m. A similar catastrophe almost occurred at the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station in Ohio in 1985 because of operator error at 1:35 a.m. And the Presidential Commission report on the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986 that killed all seven crew members aboard also mentioned that poor judgment and human error related to lack of sleep contributed to the disaster.

Had the employees involved in these incidents been aware of their compromised mental states and their Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rights regarding health and safety, it’s possible that these situations could have been avoided.

Dangers for Tired Workers

The American Safety Council recommends training employees in OSHA protocols and sleep hygiene to protect their well-being and to safeguard the workplace. It lists these dangers for tired workers:

  • Improper safety enforcement and major injury – Making employees work long shifts diminishes their ability to remain focused and alert at all times, especially in industry and construction jobs. Workers are 37 percent more likely to sustain an injury when working a 12-hour day, according to OSHA reports.
  • Impaired motor skills – Sleep-deprived workers have poor hand-eye coordination, depth perception, and balance. This is especially dangerous for construction workers who risk falling when balancing on ladders or walking on scaffolding.
  • Poor decision making and risk taking – Lack of sleep can alter a person’s judgment and leads to riskier behavior like failing to wear personal protective equipment due to discomfort. Oftentimes people don’t even realize they are compromised. For healthcare workers, OSHA cites increased errors in patient care and occupational injuries, including needlesticks and exposure to blood and other body fluids. 
  • Poor memory and information processing – Tiredness can make it difficult to focus and retain new information on the job. Distractions, impaired short-term memory, and lack of problem-solving skills can lead to costly mistakes and health and safety hazards. 
  • Falling asleep on the job – If a worker falls asleep on the job, they will not be able to react to a potential hazard in a timely manner. This was the cause of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster off the coast of Alaska after the third mate steering the supertanker decided to take a cat nap following a 22-hour shift. Because he was literally asleep at the wheel, he was unable to prevent a crash that spilled over 250,000 barrels of crude oil into Prince William Sound. The devastating damage that resulted will continue to impact the environment for decades.
  • Special risks of shift workers — Overnight shifts from midnight to 8 a.m. pose more danger than regular shifts. Shift workers may find it difficult to stay well rested because they may not be able to fall asleep during daylight. They may also have a hard time sticking to a routine sleep schedule. 
  • Inability to deal with stress – Lack of sleep also affects people emotionally. It can make them irritable and prone to outbursts that can reduce productivity. Sleep deprivation may cause anxiety, depression, and lack of motivation. In turn, stress and emotional turbulence can interfere with one’s personal life, and lead to further risk of having an accident at work.
  • Reduced productivity – According to OSHA, sleep deprivation results in a $136.4 billion annual productivity loss in the U.S. In addition to tired employees working less efficiently, they also get injured more, incurring worker compensation costs and more absences from work.
  • Long-term impact – In the long-term, sleep deprivation can cause serious health problems, including:
    • Certain cancers
    • Depression
    • Digestive and stomach issues
    • Heart disease
    • Obesity
    • Reproductive problems
    • Sleep disorders
    • Weakened immune response; increased susceptibly to cold and flu 
    • Worsening of existing disorders such as diabetes and epilepsy 

"Sleep deprivation increases the likelihood of a workplace accident by 70 percent"

Signs of Worker Fatigue

Ignoring the signs that workers may be fatigued can lead to severely negative consequences for a business. Because OSHA doesn’t place regulations on the length of work shifts, employers need to remain vigilant about educating employees about the importance of sleep. They must also take action if they notice that their workers display any of these symptoms outlined by the American Safety Council:

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

Tips for Staying Well-Rested

Regardless of your industry, it’s important to bring your best, well-rested self to work for safety and for the well-being of your company. The National Sleep Foundation recommends these strategies for developing a healthy sleep routine:

  • Stick to a sleep schedule; go to bed and wake up the same time every day, even on weekends
  • Avoid napping
  • Exercise daily
  • Set the temperature of your room between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit and use blackout curtains to keep out light
  • Sleep on a comfortable mattress and pillow free from allergens
  • Use your bed only for sleeping to strengthen the association between bed and sleep
  • Avoid alcohol, cigarettes, caffeine, and heavy meals close to bedtime
  • Wind down before bed by relaxing or reading; avoid using electronics close to bedtime
  • If you don’t fall asleep right away, get out of bed and engage in a calming activity until you feel tired 

And if you still have trouble sleeping, make an appointment to see your doctor in case you have a disorder like sleep apnea. Maintaining healthy sleep practices will help keep you safer at work, improve your general health, and contribute to an overall better quality of life.