In April, our monthly newsletter authored by Bill Bowler focused on sleep deprivation and the toll that it can take on safety and productivity (PDF). He cited the frightening story of a calamity averted when two pilots who were commanding an airline were found asleep at the wheel. It seems there’s been another recent case involving two pilots who flew past their destination in Hawaii because they were asleep at the controls. Scary much? According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), crashes linked to fatigue have killed 249 people since 1997.
NTSB will now be looking at making changes to regulations about how long pilots can fly and they will employ fatigue studies to assist in revising the regulations. Currently, the law allows pilots to work 16 hours a day, including 8 hours flying the plane.
While the issue of fatigue is of prime concern in any professions that entail responsibility for public health and safety – transportation workers, doctors and nurses, police, to name but a few – it should be of concern to all employers in terms of worker safety, product quality, and organizational productivity. A study by Caremark that appeared in Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine last year put the cost of worker fatigue at $136.4 billion annually in health-related lost productivity. Lack of sleep has been tied to increases in diabetes and heart problems. And the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that fatigue is responsible for 100,000 highway crashes and 1,500 deaths each year.
Being alert for worker fatigue
Sometimes, fatigue can be the result of organizational policies, such as work schedules and overtime hours, or a byproduct of the nature of the work itself, such as long hours spent on detailed or repetitive work. In such cases, fatigue must be addressed through organizational measures, such as changing schedules and implementing a program of breaks or job rotations.
Often, fatigue is more subtle and occurs on a worker by worker basis. Worker fatigue could be due to an illness or condition, a new baby at home, poor nutrition, too many demands on the worker’s schedule, or simply the result of a late night out on the town.
The health benefits of good sleep habits should be addressed as part of an overall wellness program, including information that discusses the potential negative health effects of too little sleep. Supervisors should be trained in and alert for fatigue symptoms and should address repeated evidence of fatigue just as any other behavior that inhibits productivity would be addressed. While it’s not appropriate for a supervisor to ‘diagnose’ the root cause of the fatigue, he or she may be in a good position to refer the employee on to an EAP or a physician so that the problem can be addressed appropriately.
The authors of the Caremark study believe that, ” …targeting workers with fatigue, particularly women, could have a marked positive effect on the quality of life and productivity of affected workers.” They suggest increasing worker access to work/life programs and making health assessments available to see if fatigue is a symptom of an underlying health condition.


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