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Asleep at the wheel

A recent, shocking study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety revealed that 41% of drivers have fallen asleep or nodded off at the wheel and that 16.5% of fatal crashes likely involve a drowsy driver. The implications for employers are huge.

Motor vehicle-related incidents are consistently the leading cause of work-related fatalities in the United States. Of approximately 5,700 fatalities annually reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 35% are associated with motor vehicles. Costs of an accident exceed $500,000 when a fatality is involved.

In recent memory, the most dramatic work-related, asleep-behind-the-wheel accident began as a simple fender-bender that resulted in a traffic backup. It mushroomed into a chain-reaction collision on an Oklahoma highway that left 10 people dead and six injured when a tractor-trailer traveling 69 mph plowed into the line of traffic.

Investigators concluded that the 76-year-old driver was falling asleep.

Fatigue has also been at the root of major bus, airline and train accidents.

Preventing roadway fatigue requires sound management practices and driver education:

  • Develop work schedules that allow employees to obey speed limits and to follow applicable hours-of-service regulations.
  • Do not require workers to drive irregular hours or far beyond their normal working hours.
  • Teach workers strategies for recognizing and managing driver fatigue and in-vehicle distractions.
  • Identify drivers that are at high risk for fatigue related problems.
  • Recognize the link between health and diet and fatigue. Develop programs to address the health and wellness of drivers.

Fatigue at work a bad sign of the economic times

In a recent statement, Thomas J. Balkin, vice chair of the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), stated: “Studies show fatigue creates long-lasting changes to one’s ability to think and function well during the work day.”

According to the same study, prolonged workdays are causing many workers to fall asleep or feel sleepy at work. The report points out that Americans are working more hours and trying to cope with the resulting sleepiness. Astonishingly, 63% of those polled stated they simply accept this sleepiness, and just keep going. Unfortunately, where many of these workers are going is to the ER.

The ramifications of a sputtering economy are that many companies have cut their workforce. Meaning, those left are working longer hours and, in some cases, performing duties unfamiliar to them without adequate training. Toss in the stress related with wondering if soon they will lose their job, and it’s a lethal combination of fear and fatigue that is resulting in rising Workers’ Compensation claims.

For example, a manufacturing company with very little history of injury claims, perhaps only five per year at the most, has seen in the last year a dramatic rise in the number of injuries, as many as 15-20, including lacerations, back sprains, broken ankles and so forth. The employer, confused by this change in the number of injuries, sighed that one of the injured “is such a good worker.”

But performance isn’t the issue. The human body is a machine, a machine with limitations. And what that employer may fail to realize is that his “good worker” is now going from a 40-hour week to a 72-hour week because there are fewer bodies on the floor to meet production demands. His employees are tired, fatigued, not moving as fast, and feeling more stress. It’s a connect-the-dots to the next Workers’ Compensation claim.

But there are simple ways employers can help fight the fatigue factor, keep employees safe and not impact their insurance premiums:

  1. Rotate workers frequently during their shifts. Workers who do the same task for hours on end tend to become both fatigued and complacent. A change of surrounding can be a key step in rejuvenating their interest and attention in the work they are doing.
  2. Initiate longer break periods. Instead of 15- or 30-minute breaks, give an hour break. Some companies even provide an area where workers can take a nap. It may seem like a long time for a worker to be “off the job,” but it’s a lot shorter than the time spent on disability leave.
  3. Use split shifts. Instead of having a worker do a straight 16-hour shift, let them work eight, go home and rest for six, then come back and do the last eight hours. The time away from the job can be extremely beneficial.
  4. Provide food. Refueling is key, and the $50 spent to have fruit and maybe even a pizza available for those working longer shifts is a good investment compared to the costly consequences associated with a prolonged disability.
  5. Stretch or exercise. Most employees feel tired during the day because their muscles remain in relatively the same position and the oxygen levels decrease. Sometimes just some simple stretching or a short 10-minute walk can help rejuvenate the body, which will keep the muscles limber and help avoid injury or strain. Displaying posters with simple stretches provided by a local therapist could also help avoid the strain of a long day.

Fatigue and long hours in the workplace are serious issues. In its investigation of the causes of the BP Texas City oil refinery explosion in 2005, in which 15 workers were killed and approximately 170 injured, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board cited worker fatigue and long work hours as likely contributing factors to the explosion.

It’s unrealistic to think that employers will suddenly restock their workforce overnight. The times are such that workplaces will remain lean and in some cases two people are doing the work once done by four.

So, be proactive in your precautions. Implementing these simple steps could go a long way in keeping productivity up and injury claims down. And with companies still cutting back, can you really afford to lose another employee?