Pay Heed to Sleep

Fatigue is a safety issue we cannot afford to ignore.

DO you sleep soundly through these hot summer nights? Are you getting enough rest to stay sharp at your job? Your doctor might pose these questions to you and learn a lot from your answers; I believe a safety manager also should care how well his or her company's workers are sleeping.

Fatigue is a safety issue. It is the second-leading cause of car accidents and a leading cause of truck accidents. With some prodding, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration was motivated to rewrite the U.S. hours of service rules last year, affecting millions of commercial truck and bus drivers by aligning driving hours more closely with circadian rhythms and thus reduce fatigue-related deaths and injuries.

Experts know more about sleep-related problems and solutions than you might expect. They advise using specific alertness management tools, including healthy sleep habits, adequate recovery sleep, naps, and caffeine and other stimulants. Employers should be screening for sleep disorders, Dr. Natalie Hartenbaum, president and chief medical officer of Dresher, Pa.-based OccuMedix Inc., stressed during her presentation about fatigue's impact on the transportation industry at this year's American Occupational Health Conference. Her co-presenter, Dr. Ilene Rosen of the University of Pennsylvania's Division of Sleep Medicine, listed elements of each tool:

  • Healthy sleep habits: Have workers get 7-9 hours of sleep before anticipated sleep loss; go to bed and get up at the same times each day; protect their sleep time against interruptions; control the sleeping environment; and eat and exercise sensibly.
  • Recovery sleep: Restore baseline alertness by getting two nights of extended sleep (sleep periods of 9-10 hours).
  • Naps: Time these to match the circadian schedule's "windows of opportunity," which include 1-3 p.m.; short naps of 30 minutes are better than long ones of two hours.
  • Stimulants: Avoid amphetamine derivatives; strategically consume caffeine, which is effective in 15-30 minutes and has a half-life of 3-7 hours for its effects.

Rosen cautioned that users can develop a tolerance to caffeine, which subsequently disrupts sleep and is a diuretic. But someone who becomes drowsy while driving could take a 20-minute nap and drink a cup of coffee to become more alert, she said. She recommended consulting the Transit Cooperative Research Program's Toolbox for Transit Operator Fatigue (visit www.tcrponline.org and find Publication R-81 among the Safety & Security publications), which shows how to design, implement, and evaluate fatigue-mitigation plans.

The National Transportation Safety Board has listed human fatigue as an area where significant improvement is needed to increase transportation safety. It is a broader problem than that, one we cannot afford to ignore.

This article originally appeared in the August 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Jerry Laws is Editor of Occupational Health & Safety magazine, which is owned by 1105 Media Inc.

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