The economic downturn back in 2008 and 2009 saw many companies trim their workforces down as work became more and more scarce and profits were diminishing. The workers that remained were being asked to do more with less. As the economy regained its footing and began continued growth, many of these companies did not return to the staffing levels they had enjoyed prior to the economic downturn. More work was coming in, but existing staff was still expected to handle it. This has led, in many cases, to longer work hours, heavier workloads, and a nation full of tired workers.
Lack of sleep affects us in many ways, such as poor judgement, lack of self-control, short tempers and even falling asleep on the job. None of the effects of exhaustion benefits the employee or the employer and, in fact, puts them both in harm’s way. Let’s take driving, for instance. Study after study has shown that tired driving can be just as dangerous as drunk driving (somebody operating on 4-5 hours of sleep is said to be the same as somebody with a Blood-Alcohol Content of 0.08), yet many companies don’t think twice about their employees getting behind the wheel of a car after pulling off a grueling work schedule. In fact, 100,000 accidents a year resulting in 40,000 injuries and 1550 deaths can be directly attributed to drowsy driving according the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (and since this information is considered to be seriously underreported, the numbers are probably much higher). Just one of these accidents can not only change (or end) a person’s life, but can also cost a company a great deal of money in lawsuits, production, medical costs, and employee morale.
Keep in mind, many states have now made drowsy driving against the law. Everything from misdemeanors for driving without sleep to felonies for serious or fatal accidents caused by drowsy workers, can be found on the books. And, if you have CDL drivers, check the DOT’s hours of service rules to ensure you and your drivers are compliant with the law.
While most people only have exposure to driving during their daily commute, the issue of exhaustion is compounded when people drive for a living or when workers are in safety-sensitive roles. Construction workers, for example, have to be aware of not only what they’re doing, but where they’re doing it and who is working around them. If a construction worker’s focus is off, it greatly increases his or her odds of getting injured – or causing injury to somebody else. Anybody who operates machinery would fall into this category as well. Imagine a crane operator who just can’t keep his eyes open or an excavator operator who is zoning out. One mistake could cost somebody’s life.
But none of this actually happens. It’s all of this is just a scare-tactic, right?
A recent survey by Virgin Pulse and vielife found that while 76% of workers reported being tired during the week, 15% actually fell asleep at work at least once per week, and about one third reported being unhappy with their sleep quality.
Fatigue at work is a very real and, apparently, very common thing. So, how do we fix it?
First, ensure your management is on board with whatever you are about to undertake. Some steps may require financial support or other resources, such as company time, that they’re going to need to approve. Besides, no program is successful that isn’t supported from the top.
Next, have procedures. Your company can’t have a vague, “Get more sleep,” policy and expect it to have an effect. What do you want to accomplish? How do you expect to do it? What rules can you impose that will be effective and enforceable? Consider a driver’s pledge in which employees sign-off on a promise to attempt certain sleeping hours and to avoid distractions while driving – this might not be enforceable, but it could get them thinking.
Then, communicate. You need to let your employees know why this is important, what lack of sleep is doing to them, and what they should be aiming for to rectify the problem. Don’t focus on dollar amounts that drowsiness may be costing the company, focus on the dangers that could befall them from dozing off or being unable to focus. Remind them that it’s not just their sleep issues that pose a danger to them, but the sleep issues of those around them. Encourage your employees to be on the lookout for tired workers around them, to speak with those they can about getting more sleep, and reporting those they feel they cannot speak with so that management may step in. Let them know what the company policies are and what repercussions there may be if people are not in compliance.
Finally, follow up. Continue to remind them about the hazards of sleep deprivation – whether in paycheck inserts, company safety meetings, or other messages from management. Share resources or articles on the topic. Investigate accidents, keeping the possibility of sleep deprivation in mind. Ask supervisors to keep an eye on employees when they first arrive for signs of sleep deprivation, as well as throughout the day. Keep the idea of getting proper rest on everybody’s mind.
Don’t take sleep deprivation lightly – the fact is that while most people believe they know when they are getting drowsy, they actually do not. Safety is all about prevention. Ensuring people are getting enough sleep and not working while fatigued can help you make great strides in your prevention efforts.
John Braun, CSP, CHST