In June 2014, a truck driver from Georgia drove 800 miles from his home to his Delaware workplace. Without stopping to rest, he then got behind the wheel of a Wal-Mart tractor trailer and headed north.
He rear-ended a limousine bus on the New Jersey turnpike, starting a chain-reaction crash involving six vehicles and 21 people. Comedy writer James McNair died and television comedian Tracy Morgan suffered serious injuries.
The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the driver, who had been awake for 28 hours, caused the crash because he was fatigued.
Employers are increasingly becoming aware of the problems that worker fatigue is causing.
Safety is the primary concern. McNair’s death and Morgan’s serious injuries are just one example of the potentially lethal consequences from working while overtired.
Statistics show that people who don’t get enough sleep get injured on the job more often than those who do.
One study showed that people who sleep eight to nine hours per night have an injury rate of 2.5 per 100 workers. The rate for those who sleep less than five hours per night is 7.9, triple the rate for their better-rested peers.
Sleepy workers also do a poorer job. A 2010 study found that fatigue-related productivity losses approach $2,000 per worker per year.
The National Safety Council (NSC) has reviewed existing research on occupational fatigue. The findings show just how pervasive the problem is:
- Almost 40% of workers sleep less than seven hours a night.
- Workers who suffer from sleep disorders such as insomnia or sleep apnea are more likely to be involved in safety incidents at work.
Lack of sleep is only one cause of fatigue among workers. Others include:
- Long work hours
- Heavy workloads
- Long commutes
- Environmental conditions, such as working outdoors in hot, cold, rainy or snowy weather
- Medical problems
- Stressful interactions with co-workers or customers
- Working multiple jobs
The NSC’s study found that 97% of workers reported at least one of these factors, and 80% reported more than one. The council also found that having two or more of these factors increased the risk of workplace injury.
Compounding the problem is modern workplace culture. American workplaces have long tended to celebrate those who push themselves hard. One popular author of business advice books has said that those who want to start successful businesses should be working 18-hour days with no time off.
Much of the responsibility for preventing fatigue lies with the workers themselves. Individuals can feel better at work by:
- Getting to bed earlier
- Avoiding alcohol before bedtime
- Limiting the use of electronic devices at night
- Taking breaks during the day
What employers can do
There are measures that employers can also take to ensure a better-rested workforce:
- Training employees on the effects of fatigue and how to manage sleep disorders
- Spreading workloads evenly
- Encouraging frequent breaks
- Designing workplaces to make jobs less tiring
- Keeping workplaces cool, and controlling humidity
- Scheduling shifts to minimize individuals’ fatigue
- Scheduling employees to work during daytime hours where possible
- Brightening workplaces
- Providing areas for employees to take quick naps
- Making sure workers get at least two consecutive days off
- Discouraging workers from extensive use of electronic devices at night
- Monitoring employees for signs of fatigue.
As employee health care costs and workers’ compensation premiums grow more burdensome, employers are paying increased attention to worker fatigue.