Sleep and Safety

One in seven truckers report that they’ve almost had an accident due to sleepiness at the wheel.

Quite a few of us aren’t getting enough sleep, and the repercussions go well beyond having a grumpy day at work.

Studies have shown that not getting your recommended daily dose of shut-eye can increase your risk for a variety of significant health issues, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and death. And if these personal health risks aren’t enough to heighten your concern, consider recent studies showing that insufficient sleep also has an adverse impact on public safety.

A recent National Sleep Foundation survey of transportation professionals found that sleepiness had a serious impact on their job performance, with 20 percent of airline pilots reporting that they have made a serious job-related error due to inadequate sleep and 18 percent of train operators and 14 percent of truck drivers saying they have had a “near miss” because of drowsiness.

These troubling findings are believed to be largely due to the long work shifts that are common in the transportation industry. Thus, sleepiness also has a more significant off-the-job safety impact for transportation workers than it does for non-transportation workers with shorter work shifts.

“Driving home from work after a long shift is associated with crashes due to sleepiness,” says Dr. Sanjay Patel, a Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) Division of Sleep Medicine researcher and a member of the survey’s task force. “We should all be concerned that pilots and train operators report car crashes due to sleepiness at a rate that is six times greater than that of other workers.”

However, even when work shifts are reasonable, the public can still be at risk when professionals who deal with the public have sleep disorders.

Dr. Charles A. Czeisler, Chief of the BWH Division of Sleep Medicine, led a recent study that examined the impact of sleep disorders on police officer health, safety, and performance. The study found that sleep disorders are quite common among officers and lead to poor safety and performance outcomes.

“Our research shows that about 40 percent of police officers screened positive for a sleep disorder and most were undiagnosed and untreated,” says Dr. Czeisler. “Untreated sleep disorders can adversely affect the health and safety of law enforcement officers, and could pose a risk to the public.”

The most common sleep disorder was found to be obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a condition that causes breathing to temporarily stop during sleep due to a narrowed or blocked airway, which affected almost one-third of all officers screened. Officers with OSA are almost twice as likely to develop cardiovascular disease and diabetes as officers without OSA.

However, it appears that all sleep disorders are a safety issue. Officers diagnosed with a sleep disorder of any kind had a higher risk of falling asleep while driving, committing an error or safety violation, and experiencing anger toward a suspect.

Dr. Czeisler is eager to examine whether screening and treatment can reverse these trends. “Identifying the prevalence of sleep disorders in this group and developing programs that may help to address them is only the first step,” says Dr. Czeisler. “Further research is needed to measure the success of these programs and to determine if sleep disorder screening and treatment in occupational settings can reduce the risks associated with these disorders.”

– Chris P

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