The derailment of a Metro North commuter train the morning of Dec. 1 brings to light the issue of sleep health on the job. Interviews with the conductor reveal fatigue may have been a factor in the accident, with the cause shifting from nodding off at the controls to “zoning out” to “highway hypnosis.” All of these can occur when the body doesn’t get enough sleep.
A recent blog in Harvard Business Review pointed out that the conductor recently switched to the day shift from the afternoon shift, which can wreak havoc on the body’s circadian rhythm. “We know from research that rotating shifts with the clock is better than rotating shifts against the clock,” noted the blog’s author Russell A. Sanna. “Mr. Rockefeller’s (the conductor) shift change was against the clock – afternoon shift to day shift rather than afternoon shift to night shift – which is associated with greater sleepiness and more frequent accidents.”
According to the National Sleep Foundation, shift workers have a greater chance of sleep disturbance and associated excessive sleepiness. “Sleepiness/fatigue in the work place can lead to poor concentration, absenteeism, accidents, errors, injuries, and fatalities,” according to the foundation. “The issue becomes more alarming when you consider that shift workers are often employed in the most dangerous of jobs, such as firefighting, emergency medical services, law enforcement and security.”
Managers and policy makers have a responsibility to address the issue of sleep among this class of workers to ensure maximum safety for both the workers and the general public, the foundation noted. “To ignore the needs of the shift worker is reckless and irresponsible when you consider that billions of dollars in yearly costs, thousands of deaths, and some of the most notorious of modern catastrophes such as the failure of the Space Shuttle Columbia and the crash of the Exxon Valdez have been attributed to human fatigue.”
Currently there are no rules in place that address shift workers changing their shifts (i.e., rotating shifts with the clock vs. rotating shifts against the clock) or employees who work extended shifts; however, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration does offer tips for employers to recognize and address sleep deprivation among its employees.
Perhaps it’s time to factor sleep health into the shift worker conversation.