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Employers Urged to Deal With Increase In Workers Not Getting Adequate Sleep

Friday, December 21, 2012
By Bruce Rolfsen

ORLANDO, Fla.--The number of workers not getting enough sleep continues to grow, increasing safety and health risks, a research scientist with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health told a recent gathering of safety managers.

NIOSH's Claire Caruso, who specializes in sleep-related issues, said employers can respond by creating “fatigue risk management systems.” Companies need to analyze which tasks could suffer when workers lack sleep and what can be done about it, Caruso said during a panel discussion Oct. 24 at the National Safety Council Congress.

“We need to recognize that this issue of fatigue and inadequate sleep has been growing,” she said.


Nearly a Third of Workers Lack Sufficient Sleep
During the 1990s, she said, one study found that 24 percent of workers reported they slept six or fewer hours a night. By 2007, the number had grown to 30 percent.

The numbers are higher for certain industries and work schedules. Seventy percent of transportation workers and 34 percent of manufacturing workers said they slept for less than six hours, Caruso said. Among workers on night shifts, 44 percent slept no more than six hours.

The disruptive requirements of shift work and long work hours are among the main causes for employees not getting what researchers consider adequate sleep--more than six hours each day.

“These are demanding schedules and reduce the opportunities for sleep, and sometimes it is the wrong time to sleep,” Caruso said.

Chronic sleep disorders are another factor affecting 50 million to 70 million workers. “Often [people] are undiagnosed and [un]treated, so they are walking around fighting these sleepiness feelings and fatigue feelings,” Caruso said.


Ignorance a Factor
Many people do not pay attention to how much they sleep because they do not understand its importance, she said.

“We've got a lot to do, so we cut into our sleep time,” Caruso said.

The body also needs sleep to take care of certain biological functions that cannot be done as well while the person is awake, Caruso said. For example, studies have found that during sleep, the immune system is active making antibodies, and the brain is reinforcing memories and control of muscle movements.

“If you played the piano today, and had a good night's sleep, the next day you'll play better,” Caruso said. “If you didn't have a good night's sleep, you'll play worse.”

Another concern is that some people work through the night, a time when the body expects to be resting. Studies linked working night shifts to a wide range of health issues such as breast cancer, heart disease, stress, menstrual problems, and obesity, Caruso said. Most people are not genetically disposed to work through the night. Their bodies react by craving food or breaking down because they are not getting enough sleep (159 DLR A-7, 8/16/12).


Prevention Measures
A fatigue risk management system can reduce the hazards, Caruso said.

For example, researchers looked at workers' performance during a 48-hour workweek to determine which mix of hours on the job and which time of day were safest, Caruso said. They found that employees working six eight-hour days had fewer incidents than their counterparts working four 12-hour days and that employees working night shifts had more incidents than day-shift workers.

If night shifts are required, Caruso said, studies found it is best to have workers keep a day or night schedule, instead of frequently changing their shifts, because the switches are difficult for most people to adjust to.

Employers should also look at the tasks workers perform to determine if some tasks should be done during daylight, when people are more alert, Caruso said. “It's up to the employers, the managers to design good schedules and not to have extra-long schedules,” she said.

Other aspects of a fatigue risk management system include training workers to be aware of and deal with fatigue, and an incident reporting and investigation process to identify what role a lack of sleep had in causing an injury or illness.

Workers need to take responsibility for managing their family and social life to maximize sleep, and recognize their health risks, she added.

The federal government regulates work hours for a few high-risk industries such as trucking, air transportation, and nuclear energy, Caruso said. Those “hours of service” rules primarily restrict the time people can be on the job, and do not deal with related health and safety issues, she said.

To help employers handle sleep issues, NIOSH is working on several programs for different industries, Caruso said. It is pilot-testing programs for nurses and truckers and is also developing programs for manufacturing, mining, and retail sales.

By Bruce Rolfsen

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