Air traffic controller fatigue has been in the news a lot this year: at Reagan National Airport in Virginia two airliners had to land on their own when the controller on duty couldn’t be awakened to assist them. Similar incidents in Reno and Knoxville airports hammered home the risks associated with fatigued workers.
These were very public examples, but what about the ones we never hear about? What about the risk of day-to-day wear-and-tear on employees?
According to recent data 22 million Americans work evening shifts, night shifts, rotating shifts, or another irregular type of schedule. These potentially sleep deprived workers are more likely to think and move more slowly, decreasing productivity. The likelihood of accidents, however, is increased, as evidenced by the estimated cost to American businesses of $18 billion a year!
Numerous reports in science journals have also shown higher health risks for shift workers. Shift work forces circadian rhythm—defined as a daily cycle of activity observed in many living organisms, including humans—into misalignment. One study correlated shift work with “sleep disorders, cardiovascular disease, peptic ulcer, metabolic syndrome, breast cancer, and undesirable pregnancy outcome.” Another report determined that starting shift work at an early age can disturb melatonin secretion and increase proinflammatory response, and may lead to a greater occurrence of multiple sclerosis. In yet another study, when rodents were subjected to circadian rhythm disruption, which simulated shift hours, they suffered more metabolic disorders, such as obesity and diabetes
Of course many industries—airlines, hospitals, security, etc—need around-the-clock workers. So what can be done to reduce risk and better ensure safety? First thing’s first: be aware of the problem and erase the stigma of the sleepy worker. Employers and employees can have meetings to talk about ways to prevent fatigue and increase safety.
How can employers help? By providing a quiet area for breaks or short naps. Discourage overtime because it will most likely lead to even more tired employees who will be more likely to fall asleep or have an accident. Encourage car pools, public transportation, or taxis to lessen the risk of car accidents due to sleepy workers driving home in a sleep-deprived state. Employers can encourage employees to try a buddy system. Two or more employees can keep an eye on each other, keep each other awake and alert.
Employers can also encourage workers to make sleep a priority. Employees should go to sleep as soon as they get home. With the help of family or friends, they should keep the environment quiet, wear eye masks and ear plugs to ensure a good “night’s” sleep.
Fatigued workers are unsafe workers. Employers can improve the workplace for shift workers with a few changes—breaks, work buddies, cots for naps, simple awareness of the problem—to decrease fatigue and increase safety.