Study: Lack of sleep could be a major cause of workplace accidents

National Public Radio recently gave three examples of where sleep deprivation is thought to be the cause of a serious accident: the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, the Exxon Valdez tanker spill,…

National Public Radio recently gave three examples of where sleep deprivation is thought to be the cause of a serious accident: the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, the Exxon Valdez tanker spill, and Civil War general Stonewall Jackson’s ill-starred 1862 campaigns.

Not all accidents bring such devastating results, of course, but we all want to reduce workplace injuries. Besides carefully following OSHA guidelines, though, what can we do?

The answer may be as simple as ensuring we all get enough sleep.

How much could sleep deprivation affect our decision-making abilities?

The effects of sleep deprivation are surprisingly acute, if a recent study is any gauge. In the study, which was published in the journal “Sleep,” the sleep-deprived volunteers did shockingly badly on a decision-making test. How badly? They got the answer wrong every time — even given 40 attempts.

The study, performed at Washington State University, involved a well-rested group of volunteers and a group that agreed not to sleep for two days and nights. They were asked to perform simple tests. In one, the subjects were asked to click a mouse when particular numbers appeared on the screen, but not to click when others appeared. Later, the researchers switched which numbers should elicit clicks from the test subjects.

No one was surprised when the well-rested group performed better on the initial test, but the sleep-deprived group didn’t do that poorly. The problem arose when the rule was switched. At that point, no one in the sleep-deprived group was able to click correctly at all, even after 40 tries.

“It wasn’t just that sleep-deprived people were slower to recover,” said a psychologist who led the study. “Their ability to take in new information and adjust was completely devastated.”

He explains that people don’t perceive lack of sleep to be as serious as it is because it doesn’t affect every aspect of brain function. For example, the well-rested group only did slightly better on tests that measured short-term memory.

Lack of sleep will come and bite you when you need to make quick decisions based on new information, he said. The best way to avoid an accident is to avoid making high-stakes decisions if you’re short on sleep — or at least take extra time to consider all factors. Just as important, be aware that your ability to second-guess yourself is depleted, so stop and think things over.

Truck drivers’ hours of service are limited for good reason

Multiple studies in recent years have shown that drowsy driving is a major cause of auto accidents. In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has estimated that at least…

Multiple studies in recent years have shown that drowsy driving is a major cause of auto accidents. In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has estimated that at least 100,000 crashes each year result directly from driver fatigue.

While all drivers should avoid drowsy driving, the risk of a serious accident may be significantly higher when a truck or bus driver is sleepy while behind the wheel. That is why the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, or FMCSA, regulates truck and bus drivers’ hours of service and requires those drivers to log their hours.

There are some slight differences in the hours-of-service limits for truck drivers and bus drivers. The FMCSA categorizes truck drivers as property-carrying drivers and bus drivers as passenger-carrying drivers.

Property-carrying drivers are allowed to operate their vehicles for no more than 11 hours after an off-duty period of 10 consecutive hours. The driving limit for passenger-carrying vehicles is 10 hours after eight consecutive hours off duty.

Truck and bus drivers’ jobs also require them to be on duty when they aren’t behind the wheel, whether for vehicle maintenance or some other reason. FMCSA regulations take this into account.

Truck drivers are not allowed to drive once they reach the 14th consecutive hour on the job after 10 consecutive hours off duty, and bus drivers are not allowed to drive once they reach the 15th consecutive hour on the job after eight consecutive hours off duty.

Unfortunately, these rules are often broken, and there have been many cases of truck and bus drivers falsifying their hours-of-service logs.

To learn more about these matters and what to do after a collision with a large commercial vehicle, please see MHK Attorneys’ “Five Things You Need To Know About Truck Accidents.”