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.