The Link Between Sleep Deprivation and Workplace Accidents

Sleep deprivation is unfortunately quite common. Studies suggest that 35% of adults are getting less than the minimum seven hours of recommended sleep. 

Poor sleep and excessive daytime fatigue are the main consequences of sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea. The resulting sleep deprivation can increase your risk for serious health issues -- including heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, stroke and type 2 diabetes. 

Another increased risk from sleep deprivation, and one often overlooked, is workplace accidents.

The Dangers of Sleep Deprivation at Work

We can all relate to how a bad night’s sleep can make you feel a little off your game the next day. You feel tired, struggling to concentrate and more irritable. A consistent lack of sleep will intensify all these effects. Sleep deprivation impairs your cognitive processing, affecting your reflexes and memory -- and you make poorer decisions.

Research points to how dangerous sleep deprivation is in the workplace. Fatigued workers are 70% more likely to have a workplace accident -- compared to those who are fully rested. Indeed, there are far too many examples of industrial accidents with horrendous consequences to ignore the link between sleep deprivation and work-related accidents.

Sleep deprivation and fatigue have been linked to the near meltdown at the Three Mile nuclear plant in 1979, as well as the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986. Another fatal accident from 1986 was the Challenger space shuttle explosion which killed all seven of its crew members. The subsequent report on this disaster also highlighted how lack of sleep and fatigue played a role in the poor judgment and the errors made that day.

In certain industries, sleep deprivation places workers and their clients at an increased risk of an accident -- with potentially fatal consequences. Any job which requires driving risks severe consequences from fatigued and drowsy drivers. Studies show drivers who are sleeping for six hours or less are 33% more likely to have an accident -- compared to drivers getting the recommended hours of sleep each day.

Similarly, construction and healthcare are work environments where a lack of sleep increases the risk of serious work place accidents. One study of nurses reported 32% more mathematical errors on night shifts compared to the day shift, a significant difference attributed to poor sleep quality affecting their judgment.

Signs of Sleep Deprivation

Although fatigue is a prime sign of poor sleep, there are other indicators employers and employees should be looking out for. These include:

  • Forgetfulness
  • Mood swings
  • Loss of hand-eye coordination
  • Headaches or body pain
  • Dizziness
  • Weight gain
  • Sluggishness
  • Paranoia

How Sleep Deprivation Impacts Work

There are many ways that sleep deprivation can ultimately impact your performance at work, some of which can have potentially fatal consequences. 

A lack of sleep affects concentration and can leave you with a muddled feel when making judgment calls. It can result in riskier calls being made, or taking more personal risks than would normally be the case when rested and with clearer cognitive processing. 

A sleep-deprived worker will often find it harder to remember and process information, which can endanger fellow employees if they cannot recall important information at vital moments.

Falling asleep at work was a factor in the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989. However, you do not have to fall asleep due to sleep deprivation to increase the risk of a workplace accident. A lack of sleep also impairs motor skills, leading to poor hand-eye coordination, as well as poor depth perception and poor balance. These can be life-threatening in any situation but particularly in industries such as construction.

Shift workers can also be at an increased risk of sleep deprivation if their body clock struggles to adapt to their new sleeping times. Trying to sleep when it is still light outside can be a problem for many people, making it harder for them to stick to a regular sleeping pattern.

A lack of sleep can also heighten stress, while stress can affect your sleep. The outcome of this vicious circle can be more stress, as well as anxiety and depression. You can become more irritable at work and prone to more mood swings. Productivity at work will suffer, but the emotional turmoil can also put you at more risk of an accident.

Productivity Cost

On top of the increased risk of accidents from sleep deprivation there will also be an impact on productivity, with the financial implications this brings. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OHSA) estimates a loss of productivity to the tune of $136.4 billion annually in the US through the effects of sleep deprivation.

A drop in productivity through fatigue and poor concentration levels may see work colleagues trying to increase their work rate to compensate, which could place them at more risk of an accident. Mood changes and increased irritability from a lack of sleep can also have a large impact on the performance of the team and company overall.

Excessive fatigue can lead to time-off work, with those who are sleep deprived twice as likely to be absent from work as their fully rested colleagues. While this may help reduce the risk of work accidents, time off related to sleep deprivation is said to cost the US economy 1.23 million working days a year.

Final Thoughts

The increased risk of work accidents caused by sleep deprivation is an issue requiring more attention and education. Sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea are common and increases the risk of sleep deprivation. There are plenty of ways to improve your sleeping patterns, but more could be done to encourage and promote the importance of sleep and fully rested employees.

Is it time for a sleep apnea test? Talk to a SleepQuest sleep specialist, and learn if you’re a good candidate.