Shift Workers Face Increased Crash Risks

Although OSHA’s guidelines for safety and health don’t cover the commute home, employers would do well to consider ways they can assist workers who are at increased risk for accidents from drowsy driving. Getting behind the wheel while sleepy can impair reaction times and judgement in a way that’s comparable to being intoxicated or under the influence of drugs. Yet six out of ten Americans admit to driving drowsy each year (according to the National Sleep Foundation). More than one out of three admit to falling asleep while driving! Here’s a look at some of the troubling facts about this hidden danger.

How Big Is the Problem?

Car crashes caused by sleepy drivers are a persistent problem of incredible scope. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration suggests that drowsy driving is the primary cause of more than 100,000 accidents reported to the police each year (the actual number is likely much higher). More than 1,550 people die in such accidents each year, and more than 71,000 are injured. The billions of dollars in losses calculated probably don’t take into account lost productivity for businesses whose employees are involved in these tragic accidents.

Which Workers Are at Risk?

Shift workers are at a six-fold greater risk of accidents from sleepy driving compared to the rest of the population. Night shifts, rotating shifts, and double shifts are all linked to a higher risk of drowsy driving crashes. Commercial drivers covering long distances and young males (18-25) are also at greater than average risk of nodding off at the wheel.

In a recent study, 16 participants were given a two-hour driving test in a real vehicle while an observer rode along. Drivers were also monitored using special glasses to track eye movements and blinking as well as EEG electrodes to measure microsleep episodes. After an eight hour sleep with no shift work, none of the participants had a near crash during the test. But after a night shift (and being awake for about 13 hours), the participants experienced much more lane drifting, slow eye movement, and microsleep. Almost half of the participants had to have their tests halted before completion due to near crashes. 

What Can Employers Do to Help?

Encouraging workers to drink caffeine before their commute isn’t necessarily helpful in the long run since it can disrupt the ability of shift workers to get to sleep once they arrive home. However, encouraging workers to take a 15-20 minute nap after they clock out may help them stay alert on the way home. Assisting with access to public transportation may also be a remedy. Finally, employers can provide educational resources to make shift workers aware of the facts about drowsy driving. Each individual should be equipped to recognize the signs and know safe ways to reduce the risk of crashes.

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