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Posted On June 04, 2021

Study: Shift Workers May Be Putting Drivers’ Safety at Risk

Workers who work night and rotating shifts commonly suffer from drowsiness, fatigue, and sleep disorders that contribute to dangerous driving behaviors.

Shift Work Poses Dangers Behind the Wheel

For employees who work night shifts, rotating shifts, and graveyard shifts, staying alert on the job can be especially challenging. Shift work significantly impacts the body’s circadian clock tricking the body into activity when it should be resting. According to a study released by the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, shift work disrupts the circadian clock, decreases sleep quality, and alters mood and metabolism.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that about 15 million Americans are shift workers. Shift work is common for workers in certain industries such as manufacturing, warehousing, food services and food processing, hospitality, and health care. Shift work was originally designed to maintain 24-hour workdays each week to speed up production, meet consumer demands, and improve company profits. In most cases, companies that use shift workers do reap those benefits, but workers pay a big price with a variety of health problems. The prevalence of shift work has spurred many research studies on the adverse health and safety effects on shift workers.

Since shift work disrupts the body’s circadian clock, shift workers experience a high rate of shift work sleep disorders (SWSD). These types of sleep disorders can cause extreme cases of:

  • Drowsiness
  • Physical and mental fatigue
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Insomnia
  • Cognitive and memory impairment
  • Anxiety and/or depression

Accident lawyers witness many serious, even fatal, car crashes caused by SWSD. Research shows that drivers who suffer from SWSD are nearly 3 times more likely to be involved in a car crash, compared to drivers without sleep disorders. SWSD contributes to the highest crash risks, especially for older drivers who are age 65 or above. Drivers with sleep disorders are 29% more likely to be inattentive behind the wheel. Drivers suffering from sleep deprivation and insomnia are 33% more likely to cause a car crash or be involved in one.

SWSD occurs most often in workers who regularly work non-traditional hours in night shifts, rotating shifts, and graveyard shifts. Working through the night and sleeping during the day over a prolonged period of time can lead to numerous sleep problems that impact driving skills and driving safety. To make matters even worse, 75% of shift work employers underestimate the prevalence of workplace fatigue caused by SWSD, so they do not communicate health or safety concerns to their workers.

Different shift schedules can have different effects on shift workers. The way the shift pattern is designed by an employer has a significant effect on a worker’s sleep patterns. The longer a worker performs shift work, the more serious health problems may become. To minimize SWSD, employers should be aware of the problems caused by shift work and those problems should be clearly communicated to shift workers. To promote both workplace and driving safety for shift workers, employers should encourage short breaks, adequate rest, and healthy sleep time.

Drowsy Driving vs. Drunk Driving

Fatigue and alcohol both cause dangers on the road. While fatigued drivers are much less alert, drunk drivers are often impulsive with risky driving behaviors. Research shows that fatigue and sleep deprivation can cause similar problems for drivers. After 18 hours of being awake, a driver experiences problems with reaction time, hand-eye coordination, multi-tasking, and vigilance.

Drivers awake for 18 hours or more show similar driving behaviors as drivers with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.05%. After 20 hours of being awake, drowsy drivers are impaired on a level comparable to drunk drivers with a 0.08% BAC, the current legal limit in most states. After 24 hours awake, driving impairment is equivalent to a BAC of 0.1%, an impairment rating seen by accident lawyers who handle serious personal injury cases. Indiana accident lawyers commonly see impaired or risky driving behaviors in drivers who sleep than six hours; drivers with SWSD; drivers impaired by alcohol, drugs, or medications; professional drivers and truckers; and shift workers.

Fatigue and drunk driving contribute to both physical and mental impairments that can cause car accidents. Common impairments include:

  • Blurred vision
  • Head drooping and yawning
  • Daydreaming or lack of focus
  • Lack of memory recall
  • Poor judgment of distance and speed
  • Loss of motor skills

Accident reports by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) show that approximately 100,000 car accidents reported by police each year involve drowsy or sleep-deprived drivers. These crashes result in more than 71,000 yearly injuries and 1,550 yearly deaths. Reports by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety estimate that there are about 328,000 drowsy driving crashes each year. That’s more than three times the NHTSA police-reported number. Both NHTSA and AAA suspect that accurate numbers may be much higher, but drowsy or fatigued driving is more difficult to prove than drunk driving.

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