Sleeplessness, Fatigue are Safety Issues in the Workplace, Study Says


By Liz Carey

Indianapolis, IN ( – According to a study by the National Safety Council (NSC), sleeplessness and fatigue can cost employers millions in decreased productivity, missed work and employee health issues. 

Last week, the NSC and the Bingham Health Sleep Matters Initiative released a tool that will help employers see just how much fatigue is costing them. NSC estimates that the average Fortune 500 company could see as much as $80 million a year in losses as a result of sleeplessness and fatigue. For smaller companies with 1,000 employees, the losses could reach up to $1.8 million, the study showed.

According to the NSC, more than 43 percent of all workers are sleep-deprived, and those most at risk work the night shift, long shifts or irregular shifts. As employees become tired, their safety performance decreases and their risk of accidental injury increases. And studies show missing out on sleep makes a person three times as likely to be involved in an accident while driving. Also, missing as little as two hours of sleep is the equivalent of having three beers.

"Sleep, along with nutrition and exercise, is one of three pillars of good health," said Dr. Charles A. Czeisler,  director of the Sleep Matters Initiative at Brigham Health, and the Baldino Professor of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He told, "Promotion of healthy sleep is a win-win for both employers and employees, enhancing quality of life and longevity for workers while improving productivity and reducing healthcare costs for employers." 

Employers can see lost productivity costs of between $1,200 to $3,100 per employee per year. 

The study also found that:

Matthew Hallowell, associate professor of construction engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder, said the effects of fatigue can include slower reaction time, more errors and decreased cognitive ability. While fatigue can occur in all industries, numerous studies have found that it is most common in shift work.

“The industries that are at highest risk would be those where people are working long hours, overtime, many days in a row, when they’re exposed to harsh environmental conditions, like working outside in the rain, snow,” Hallowell said to Safety and Health Magazine, an NSC publication. “Environmental conditions can include things like noise or vibration, really heavy mental task loads for long periods of time. You can extend to what industries that defines, like electrical transmission and distribution line workers, or people who drive snowplows.” 

Alec Johnson, a shift supervisor with RBC Aerospace in Westminster, SC, works second shift. He said working odd hours makes getting to sleep more difficult, and getting motivated at work hard to do some times.

“You just come in and you’re so tired, you just sit there for an hour trying to get motivated to get on the job,” he said. “Once you get used to it, it’s not so bad, but it does require sleep aids every once in a while.”

For people working multiple jobs, the loss of 40 minutes of sleep per day, compared to those who work only one job, makes them extra vulnerable to fatigue, said David Lombardi, principal research scientist at the Center for Injury Epidemiology at the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety in Hopkinton, MA during the Dec. 13 “Fatigue Blue Ribbon Panel” in Chicago, hosted by the National Safety Council.

“Fatigue is an increasing health and safety problem in our daily lives due to the 24-hour society with decreasing emphasis on sleep,” Lombardi said.

Lombardi and other researchers estimated that for workers who usually sleep less than five hours per day, the annual injury incidence rate is 7.89 per every 100 workers. Comparatively speaking, the annual injury incidence rate for workers who get between seven and eight hours of sleep a night is 2.27.

In fact, occupational medicine specialists Khosro Sadeghniiat-Haghighi and Zohreh Yazdi, wrote that fatigue could be attributed to some of the most disastrous workplace accidents around the world. 

“Fatigue affects everyone regardless of skill, knowledge, and training. It has influences directly on many people's physical and mental abilities needed to carry out even simple task. The most important effects of fatigue including decreased task motivation, longer reaction time, reduction of alertness, impaired concentration, poorer psychometric coordination, problems in memory and information processing, and poor judgment,” the two researchers wrote in their article Fatigue Management in the Workplace. “Also, a (fatigued person has) poor communication with the surrounding environment and more quickly becomes angry towards other people. Therefore, a fatigue worker is potentially dangerous to themselves and others, and the highest rate of catastrophic incidents is usually found among fatigue shift workers. For example, some of the most serious accidents in recent three decades have been attributed to the shift worker's fatigue. The world's worst nuclear power accident occurred at Chernobyl on April 25, 1986 at 1:23 am. The accidents at Three Mile Island, the oil spill from the Exxon Valdez, all occurred between midnight and 6 am. These accidents along with a great deal of transportation accidents in roads were raised from humans’ fatigue.”

Experts say employers can help combat fatigue by offering breaks, scheduling work when employees are most alert and promoting the importance of sleep.

The NSC released a Fatigue Cost Calculator that allows employers to see the costs of fatigue in their own companies. Developed by the NSC and Bingham and Women’s Hospital, the calculator looks at industry type, number of employees and where a business is located in order to determine the cost to employers, as well as how much of that cost can be deferred through different initiatives.

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