James Herdegen M.D., the medical director of the Sleep Science Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, spoke to OccupationalHazards.com about how sleep deprivation is a problem more common than most people realize.

“Probably half of our population, perhaps even more, is not obtaining sufficient sleep on a daily basis,” he said.

According to Dr. Herdegen, “sufficient” sleep amounts to approximately 8 hours a day. Getting less than that can lead to impaired math skills, thought processes or memory, which can create serious hazards for workers operating forklifts, driving trucks or performing other at-risk duties.

In fact, Herdegen said, sleep-deprived workers may have had a role in major events such as several Amtrak train derailments, the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Three Mile Island accident. Whether those events were influenced by sleep-deprived employees or not, workers performing their jobs on inadequate amounts of sleep can run a higher risk of being injured, making mistakes or otherwise compromising workplace safety.

For example, Herdegen pointed to clinical studies examining sleep deprivation among medical profesionals, such as emergency room residents who work at night and have a higher rate of motor vehicle accidents or near misses. Other effects might include improper documentation, prescribing medications incorrectly or giving incorrect verbal orders to nursing staff.

Health Risks

While sleep-deprived impairment can pose grave safety risks for workers operating machinery or driving vehicles, their health also is affected in less immediate ways.

Shift workers, Herdegen pointed out, often are at a higher risk for a number of health problems, including peptic ulcers, hypertension and cardiovascular diseases, and also face an increased risk of making workplace errors. Working night shifts may disturb employees’ circadian rhythms or even cause them to get less sleep overall.

“Shift workers in general tend to get an hour less of sleep per day than day workers,” Herdegen said.

Not getting enough sleep also can lead to obesity or weight gain, as sleep-deprived individuals often increase their caloric intake. “Research suggests that a person sleeping 4 hours is hungrier despite receiving the same amount of calories as someone sleeping 8 hours,” Herdegen added.

Obesity can then lead to diabetes, hypertension or other health problems, as well as decreased productivity and increased absenteeism. Workers who do not get enough sleep therefore must be diligent about making healthy eating choices and getting enough exercise.

Tips for Better Rest

According to Herdegen, the most common cause of sleep deprivation is periods of insufficient or poor sleep. This could include transient insomnia or life stress events that keep people from getting enough restful sleep. Other conditions can also lead to sleep deprivation, such as sleep apnea, insomnia, restless leg syndrome or the comparatively rare narcolepsy.

Herdegen explained that sleep-deprived workers can take steps to regain a normal sleep schedule and improve safety and productivity:

  • Gain family support. Nigh shift employees must ensure they have a restful environment at home during their sleep hours. “They have to have accommodations from family members to maintain a quiet atmosphere during non-traditional sleep times rather than having a chaotic household at 10 o’clock in the morning,” Herdegen said of night shift workers.
  • Schedule sleep periods. Herdegen added that some workers should realize that realistically, they won’t be able to sleep 8 hours at once. But that doesn’t mean they should function without enough sleep: those 8 hours can be split into two sleep periods. For example, if workers can only get a solid 6 hours of sleep at a stretch, they should schedule a two-hour nap at a later time during the day.
  • Nap. Taking a short nap can lead to a significant recovery of function. “There’s evidence that naps are quiet productive in restoring functionality. It only takes about an hour of napping to restore about 4 hours of high-level functioning,” Herdegen said.

The Employer’s Role

According to Herdegen, employers can play a role in easing sleep deprivation in the workplace and reap the benefits of improved safety and reduced costs to their company by tuning into their workers. First, Herdegen pointed out, employers should be sure to break up the monotony of repetitive tasks.

“The attention does wane, especially in a sleep-deprived individual, usually after a 1-2 hour period,” he said. “So try to take more frequent breaks, especially if it’s a task that could potentially be hazardous to the employee.”

Next, employers can turn to lighting to offer solutions for the sleep-deprived worker. Herdegen said that using high-intensity lighting can be a stimulating or alerting influence for workers.

He also suggested that employers allow workers to plan naps into their schedules. For example, perhaps workers can combine two 15-minute breaks and use that time to nap. Allowing workers to nap can be “a huge safety benefit” for employers, Herdegen said.

Finally, he pointed out that a buddy system can help prevent safety issues if a worker is sleep-deprived. If one employee notices his partner is looking tired or starting to make mistakes, he can encourage him to take a break.

A Real Risk

Workers may make the mistake of thinking that sleep-deprivation is a one-time problem, or something that can be overcome by growing accustomed to its effects. But according to Herdegen, sleep deprivation often is chronic and affects workers even when they feel they can function normally on insufficient sleep.

“Most people feel they’re not at risk, but they are,” he said. “With time, people feel that they’re coping with that sleep deprivation and functioning fine. But if you take those individuals and study them, they’re quite impaired.”

He explained that the consequences of that impairment can happen very quickly. For example, imagine a sleep-deprived truck driver falling asleep for 2 seconds while driving 60 miles per hour. In those 2 seconds, the truck may have traveled more than 100 feet and swerved into another lane. It took only a moment, but that sleep-deprived individual could have caused a major accident.

“It doesn’t take much for a lapse of consciousness or concentration for major injury to happen,” Herdegen said.