Workzone: Worker fatigue costs employers billions

Losing night of sleep, being over legal alcohol limit produce similar cognitive ability

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Most employees would not dare go to work liquored up to the point of intoxication.

Yet they wouldn't think twice about showing up at the job ready to pass out from lack of sleep.

Sleep expert Robert Oexman, a doctor of chiropractic, says if a worker loses just one night of sleep, his cognitive ability is roughly the same as being over the legal alcohol limit.

"The normal 9-to-5 worker has, unfortunately, given up on sleep," said Mr. Oexman, director of the Sleep to Live Institute in Joplin, Mo. "Now the normal population is getting six hours or less per night."

Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently found that 41 million workers -- about a third of the U.S. workforce -- do not get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep per night and that the consequences of burning too much midnight oil can be severe.

Whether it is due to unhealthy lifestyle choices or stress in the workplace, the government study found insufficient sleep can have serious and sometimes fatal consequences for fatigued workers and others around them.

"Any kind of worker could be at risk for injuries and accidents, especially if they drive or operate heavy machinery," said Sara Luckhaupt, lead author of the CDC study on sleep and the workplace. "Sleep deprivation for white collar or office workers could affect the quality of their work and have long-term health consequences."

The CDC study was based on data from the 2010 National Health Interview Survey on sleep habits of U.S. workers, which involved 15,214 people. It found employees are more likely to get less sleep if they work in manufacturing, work the night shift or work more than one job.

People ages 30 to 64 are more likely to be sleep deprived, compared to those ages 18 to 29 and workers 65 and older.

"We thought it was interesting that even for night shift workers the risk of sleep deprivation was different for different industries," Dr. Luckhaupt said. "It seemed to be especially a problem in transportation and health care."

She added that night shift workers in the arts, entertainment and recreation industries have less problems with getting enough sleep.

Even occasional sleeping problems can make daily life difficult. Lack of sleep can make people irritable and impatient, make it hard to concentrate and disrupt driving skills.

According to a 1997 National Science Foundation poll, "Sleeplessness, Pain and the Workplace," sleep loss costs U.S. employers an estimated $18 billion in lost productivity.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conservatively estimates that vehicle crashes due to driver fatigue cost Americans $12.5 billion per year in reduced productivity and property loss.

The greatest cost is that an estimated 1,500 people die each year in fatigue-related crashes.

Krishna Pendyala, chief operating officer and a life coach at Waldron Wealth Management in Bridgeville, said workers should be keenly aware that their minds need as much rest as their bodies.

"We have a tendency to say we will sleep on a problem," Mr. Pendyala said. "But when you do that, your mind is not allowed to rest even though your body is rested. While you may have a solution in the morning, your mind did not get a chance to rest. Sooner or later you will get mind fatigue."

Mr. Oexman said technology is partly to blame for modern-day fatigue. Workers are staying up later to watch TV and do other things. They take their laptops to bed and are prone to checking Facebook and emails throughout the night. It all adds up to showing up for work after losing valuable hours of sleep.

"They lose focus and have to reread information," he said. "Their ability to concentrate and remember information is diminished. They call in sick more often and are more prone to illness, absenteeism and tardiness. The high Monday morning absenteeism rate is probably due to sleep deprivation."

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Tim Grant: or 412-263-1591


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