Why Sleep Deprivation Makes Work Dangerous

Being busy and productive doesn’t justify being dangerous in the workplace. Yet, many employers place their employees in harm’s way by putting them to work while they’re exhausted or sleep-deprived. While it might seem like an annoyance to workers, sleep deprivation can trigger life-altering accidents that place the lives and well-being of workers at risk.

Let's take a closer look at the connection between sleep deprivation and work accidents.

How Much Sleep Should Workers Have?

According to doctors, the average adult requires between 7.5-8 hours of sleep to function properly mentally and physically. Unfortunately, according to studies, nearly two-thirds of Americans are not meeting their sleep needs. The problem of sleep deprivation is often overlooked because its effects are not always noticeable. It can be difficult to identify sleep deprivation as a direct cause of an incident, even though it is often an underlying factor in workplace accidents and decreased productivity.

The Benefits of Good Sleep

You know the feeling of waking up after getting a good night’s sleep. It’s that feeling that you can tackle whatever the day brings. It’s that satisfying stretch and yawn before you get up and start your morning routine before going to work.

Getting good sleep is important in any line of work. It promotes physical recovery and can help improve mental health as well. As you sleep, tissues throughout your body are repaired and strengthened. Your cardiovascular system gets some much-needed rest. Your immune response gets stronger. Your brain gets the opportunity to create and maintain pathways that improve your ability to form memories and retain information. Unlike sleep-deprived workers, you’ll be ready to tackle your workday from both a physical and mental standpoint.

Losing just one or two hours of sleep each night can have more of an impact on work performance than one may realize. A lack of sufficient rest can affect mental and physical function, showing us the primary link between sleep deprivation and work accidents.

Can a Worker Function on No Sleep for a Day?

The average person can survive without sleep for a day, but this does not mean they’ll be able to make any significant contributions at work. Even at 17 or 19 hours awake, a person could experience physical and mental impairment similar to a person with a .05% blood alcohol level. At 24 hours awake, this could be compared to having a blood alcohol level of .1%, which is above the legal limit to operate a motor vehicle. It’s unclear how long a human being can survive without sleep, but the longest recorded time is just over 11 days. After just a few nights without sleep, a person can begin to hallucinate.

Sleep Deprivation & Work Accidents: How They're Linked

Now, let's consider the specific factors that link sleep deprivation and work accidents. This involves looking deeper into the different ways that sleep deprivation affects workers and their physical and mental abilities.

Workers most at risk for sleep deprivation are those who do shift work. Shift work has been extensively studied and shown to have a negative impact on the rest and overall health of workers. In fact, it has been tied to numerous health problems ranging from heart disease to cancer.

This post won’t focus on the health risks of sleep loss. Instead, it will focus on the immediate negative effects that sleep deprivation has on workers suffering from it. Most of these complications impact productivity, reactivity, and other factors essential for everyday work. These complications are what connect sleep deprivation and work accidents so closely.

Lack of Communication

Studies have shown that sleep-deprived workers do not communicate as well as rested workers. Lack of sleep causes them to lower their voice, pause between sentences, mumble, mispronounce words, repeat themselves, and lose their train of thought.

Decline in Performance

Tired workers see drastic declines in their performance and daily output levels. On average, sleep-deprived workers display performance levels in the 9th percentile compared to rested workers. In other words, employers who overwork employees aren’t getting the increased production they think they are getting from longer hours. Instead, they have a tired workforce that is as dangerous as it is underproducing.

Prone to Distractions

Research has shown an overlap in symptoms of sleep deprivation and ADHD. Some of those symptoms include an inability to focus, keep track of events, attend non-essential activities, and maintain an interest in outcomes.

This is especially dangerous in settings such as industrial work or construction. Often, workers in these industries need to be focused so they can get their job done properly and safely. Exhaustion can trigger an accident that injures or kills dozens of workers.

Driving Impairments

The effects of driver fatigue or drowsy driving have been well-documented. In fact, nearly 100,000 car accidents each year are caused at least in part by driver fatigue. Workers who are required to drive or operate heavy machinery such as forklifts are at much higher risk of being involved in an accident if they are tired. Studies have shown that sleep deprivation can slow down reaction times as much as being legally intoxicated.

Exhausted drivers:

  • Focus less on the road
  • Have slow reaction times
  • Have impaired decision-making skills

Commercial drivers are the most likely members of the workforce to drive while exhausted. However, industries that require physically demanding work or long hours also can also be prime for placing exhausted workers on the road.

Decreased Cognitive Ability

Sleep deprivation is associated with a reduced ability to grasp and analyze new information. It has also been shown to decrease memory capacity and the ability to adjust when presented with new information. When workers are not able to think up to their normal capacity, they are more prone to accidents.

Behavior Modification

Workers who are not getting enough sleep tend to be more prone to mood swings. They can become socially withdrawn or even erupt in violent outbursts.

Common behavioral signs of sleep deprivation include:

  • Irritability
  • Impatience
  • Disregard for social standards
  • Inappropriate conduct
  • Unwillingness to plan ahead

Additionally, a lack of sleep has been closely linked to depression.

Increased Risk-Taking

Sleep-deprived workers are more likely to engage in risky behaviors. In fact, studies have shown that when people are deprived of sleep, there is an increase in activity in the part of the brain that prompts risky decisions and a decrease in activity in the part of the brain that controls rational thinking. When sleep-deprived workers are making riskier decisions, they and their coworkers are at unnecessary risk.

What Employers Can Do to Avoid Sleep Deprivation & Work Accidents

Some companies actually support or encourage a “you-can-sleep-when-you’re-dead” culture where employees are applauded or rewarded for working extra hours, pulling all-nighters, or coming to work even when they’re sleep deprived or ill. For workers in certain fields, such as the oil and gas industry, commercial trucking, or manufacturing, working long shifts and working at night are the norm. This can disrupt sleep cycles, having detrimental effects on workers and increasing the chances of an accident.

Employers must implement schedules that take a worker’s need for sleep into consideration. They must not allow a culture to be created that supports working while sleep deprived or sick. If they do, they should be held accountable. 

The link between sleep deprivation and accidents is well established; employers must take this into account as a part of promoting a safe workplace for their employees.

Lifting the Veil on Work Accidents & Sleep Deprivation

One night without sleep can impact how your brain functions for up to two weeks. While it is uncommon for workers to go an entire night without sleeping, getting too little sleep on consecutive nights has a cumulative effect on cognitive abilities. Just four nights in a row of reduced sleep can be the equivalent of an entirely sleepless night.

A single sleep-deprived worker is more prone to causing an accident, but that likelihood increased exponentially when almost two out of three workers are suffering from sleep deprivation. Employers must make sure that their workers are getting the rest they deserve—this means avoiding overworking them at all costs. Hard work and long hours are never good reasons to cause lives to be risked.

If you have been injured in a workplace accident caused or influenced by sleep deprivation, contact Arnold & Itkin today to learn about your legal rights.

Contact Us

Get Started with a Free Consultation

  • Please enter your first name.
  • Please enter your last name.
  • This isn't a valid email address.
    Please enter your email address.
  • This isn't a valid phone number.
    Please enter your phone number.
  • Please make a selection.
  • Please make a selection.
  • Please enter a message.