Tom works third shift on your manufacturing floor. He works hard but has a difficult time sleeping between shifts and relies on copious amounts of coffee to make it through his work night. He never complains, since company culture accepts fatigue and weariness as part of the job. But is it safe to let Tom continue to work in his sleep-deprived state, even though he's a model employee with a clean safety record?

According to Steven Lockley, Ph.D., associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, neuroscientist at Brigham & Women's Hospital, and speaker at CBIA's Annual Health and Safety Conference, the answer is no. As an employer, it's your responsibility to understand the dangers associated with sleep deprivation and its impact on employees' safety and productivity.

"Sleepiness is a real danger in the workplace, at home, and on the roads: and it's avoidable," says Lockley. "We know it's going to happen. We know why people get sleepy. This is something we can prevent and reduce the risk of serious problems."

Don't Sleep While Driving

Sleep is vital to human health and well-being. When employees are sleep-deprived, they can put themselves and others at risk, especially if they get behind the wheel or operate heavy machinery.

Participants in a study who drove after having been awake for 17-19 hours were as impaired as if they had a blood alcohol concentration of 0.05%, says Lockley. Those who had been awake for 24 hours were as impaired as if they had a blood alcohol concentration of roughly 0.10%. (Connecticut law prohibits driving with a blood alcohol level of .08%.)

"It's not the damage you do to yourself, which is serious enough," he said. "It's the damage you do to other people that's unacceptable. Really take this seriously and educate your employees, because it's other people who are harmed, and it's unacceptable to behave in a way that harms others."

Ensuring a Well-Rested Workforce

Melissa Chalk, administrative assistant for safety at RSCC Wire & Cable LLC in East Granby, says her company is looking to include more sleep-deprivation awareness in its wellness program. "It seems like it affects more and more people now," she says.

So what steps can employers like Melissa's take to protect their employees? Here are several to consider:

  • Screen employees for sleep disorders. Identifying and correcting problems like sleep apnea and insomnia can protect your workers, increase productivity, and reduce healthcare costs.
  • Reduce continuous-duty shift work. Combining long shifts and tired workers is unsafe and counterproductive.
  • Avoid consecutive night shifts. Employees need 24 hours in between shifts to recover from sleep deprivation. The risk of accident or injury also goes up as the consecutive night shifts an employee works increase.
  • Reduce the duration of night shifts. Longer daytime shifts and shorter night shifts reduce the time period in which your employees are exposed to the risks of sleep deprivation. Also be aware of an increased risk of injury toward the end of a shift.
  • Consider your employees' wake hours, not just work hours. Don't ignore long commutes to and from work when creating employee schedules. They affect employee safety too.
  • Invest in sleep education. Make sure your employees know about steps they can take: like napping several hours before a night shift: to avoid sleep deprivation.