I love a good zombie movie and I am not alone. The TV series “The Walking Dead” is one of the highest watched shows on TV today. When season five aired, it attracted 17.3 million viewers.

Unfortunately, I am afraid the long feared fictional zombie apocalypse may already be here, but instead of craving human flesh they crave caffeine.

Sleep deprivation has become the norm for many of us as we balance work, family and life. We burn our candles at both ends relying on coffee and energy drinks keep us going. This can have a negative impact on our concentration, work performance, safety, health and quality of life.

Not Enough Sleep

We now live in a 24/7 world that seems to never unplug or shut down. To show you the difference in our sleep habits over time, Americans in 1942 reported getting an average of eight hours sleep each night. Today’s sleep studies reveal that about 40% of Americans say they sleep under seven hours per night.

When it comes to our safety at work or anywhere else, lack of sleep can increase the likelihood of accidents and near misses. Imagine that 40% of your workforce is sleep deprived to some level. Here are some of the identified concerns:

  • Irritability – negative emotions and lack of sleep go hand in hand.
  • Inability to learn – Lack of sleep affects the brains ability to remember and retrieve information, both long term and short term.
  • Poorer vision – The longer a person is awake, the more visually impaired they become. In extreme sleep deprivation they may even hallucinate.
  • Slower reflexes – Sleep studies involving collage athletes and West Point cadets found sleep deprivation directly impacted reflex time.
  • Increased risk taking – People are more apt to take unnecessary risks when in a sleep deprived state.
  • Distractedness – The ability to focus requires a person be fully rested. Tasks that call for a person to be alert and attentive suffer as distractions and the inability to concentrate sets in.
  • Sloppiness – One study found that one sleepless night contributed to a 20-32% increase in the number of errors made by surgeons.

Sleep Deprivation and Safety

Sleep deprivation may be all that is needed to turn a safe employee into an unsafe employee. For instance, drowsy driving is often compared to drunk driving. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 100,000 police-reported crashes are the direct result of driver fatigue each year. This results in an estimated 1,550 deaths, 71,000 injuries, and $12.5 billion in monetary losses. For more on how fatigue can effect everyday activities, check out Fatigue Management.

No matter what the work environment, sleep deprivation should be a concern. Remember, if averages uncovered by sleep studies are right, this may estimate that up to 40% of your employees are sleep deprived. When investigating accidents or incidents of employees simply not following rules and they explain their actions with a simple “I forgot,” sleep deprivation may be a factor.

Although most safety enforcement agencies such as OSHA do not have a regulation for sleep deprivation, they do require that you know an employee is fit for duty. So, what can employers do?

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Educate and Observe

Every year the National Sleep Foundation names a sleep awareness week. This is an awareness campaign for shedding light on getting a good night’s sleep. When I was the Safety Officer for a large manufacturer, we used this occasion each year to educate employees about the importance of getting a good night’s sleep. We placed information in newsletters, discussed the topic in safety meetings and placed literature in break rooms.

This article has centered on sleep deprivation and safety. When promoting the topic at work, I would suggest an equal focus on the health benefits of getting enough sleep. As with anything, we all look for the WIFM or the “What’s in it For Me.”

The health benefits are important and well worth noting. This may be enough to motivate some employees to get more sleep. Benefits of a good night’s sleep include:

  • Weight loss – many studies have proven that lack of sleep can promote weight gain
  • You may live longer – Although researchers are not sure why, people that sleep at least eight hours tend to outlive those who regularly get less sleep then eight hours
  • Your immune system works better – Previous studies have associated sleep deprivation with the development of diseases like obesity, diabetes and hypertension. Others have shown that sleep helps sustain the functioning of the immune system, and that chronic sleep loss is a risk factor for immune system impairment
  • You feel better – When you have had enough sleep, you tend to feel better emotionally and physically Just as not getting enough sleep creates a host of health and safety issues, getting enough sleep is essential for a happy and healthy lifestyle.

I believe the care for employee safety should include their health and wellbeing. This is fostering community at work. If you do not care about people, you won’t care about their safety. With the exception being the WIFM to management in terms of avoiding fines and the cost associated with poor safety such as high insurance.

Employers that care about their employees’ health and wellbeing can enjoy the benefits of fewer sick days taken and higher morale and productivity. We invest in those that invest in us.

There Is No Replacement For Sleep

I understand that most of us have gone sleep deprived at one time or another. This is part of the reason energy drink sales are at an all-time high with estimated sales of 13 billion U.S. dollars for 2015.

In 2014, Starbucks' revenue amounted to approximately 16.45 billion U.S. dollars, up from 14.9 billion dollars the previous year. Caffeine has become the world’s drug of choice for dealing with less sleep. Coffee will help short term, but there is a cumulative affect to sleep deprivation.

Every time you cheat your brain of needed sleep, it is like borrowing from your sleep bank. This leads to what is called “sleep debt.” This is characterized by mental, emotional and physical fatigue. It can lead to problems in performing day-to-day activities; particularly the high-level cognitive functions that are carried out in the frontal regions of the brain. You must, at some point, pay it back. This will mean catching up on sleep at some point in time. Here are some tips for promoting a good night’s sleep:

  • Don’t change your sleep on weekends – maintain your weekday sleep schedules. Your body gets used to this sleep cycle
  • Wind down. Establish a routine to transition between waking and sleep. Soaking in a hot tub or reading a book before retiring can greatly improve the quality of sleep one gets.
  • Make your bedroom sleep friendly – dark, quiet, comfortable and cool.
  • No TV or electronics in bed - Watching television or working on a computer can impede your ability to relax and fall to sleep.
  • Avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol for several hours before bedtime.
  • Allow enough to time for sleep. Before you start listing all the reasons why you can’t do this, consider that people who get enough sleep are significantly more productive than those who are deprived and they feel better.
  • Power nap. A 20 minute (no more) nap followed by exercise will make you feel refreshed and provide you a pick-me-up that will last for hours.
  • Finish eating at least two to three hours before your regular bedtime.
  • Exercise regularly and complete your workout a few hours before bedtime.

Bookend Your Days

I have always been one of those guys that like quality over quantity, but when it comes to sleep, quality comes from quantity. This simply means getting the amount of sleep you need to stay healthy and alert. We can’t control much of what happens during a typical day, however the bookend concept can help. This simply means creating a routine you start your day with and a routine you end the day with. Just as you may always get out of bed at the same time and follow a routine, create a night time routine. Create that needed transition from being active to winding down for sleep.

As safety professionals, it is sad to think that all our efforts to keep employees safe can be circumvented by a lack of sleep. Educate employees about sleep and get enough sleep yourself. Avoid becoming a caffeine zombie. You’ll feel better, look better and, most likely, be much more fun to be around.

Register for my free webinar: How Effective Hazard Assessments Improve Your Safety Culture