By Allen Smith
Sleep is heavily regulated in the trucking industry, where drivers with a sleeper berth must account for at least eight hours spent in that berth, while allowing a driver to split the allotted sleeping time into two periods, provided that neither is less than two hours. Howard Mavity, an attorney with Fisher & Phillips in Atlanta, should know. Growing up, his family owned a trucking company.
Mavity thinks that employee fatigue may be the next big issue that unions and other groups challenge employers with, just as they’re currently doing with safety issues and demands for a living wage. There will likely also be efforts to regulate sleep in other industries in order to prevent the accidents and bad judgment that come with a lack of rest.
Pictures of Those Sleeping on the Job Posted
Mavity points to a Buzzfeed article (“Doctors Are Sharing Pictures of Themselves Asleep to Defend a Resident Caught Sleeping”) about a movement in Latin America protesting sleep deprivation in the health care industry.
The protest began after someone snapped a picture of a medical resident sleeping on the job and posted it in a blog criticizing the resident.
Others in the health care industry stuck up for her, showing solidarity by posting pictures of themselves sleeping on the job.
“I think this could take off in the U.S.,” Mavity said. While there are regulations about sleep in transportation, he said, “It’s the Wild West for almost everything else.”
The state of California mandates meal and rest breaks, but not breaks for sleep, he noted. And if regulations for sleep take off, “Why limit it to health care?” he asked.
Ethical lapses and poor judgment that leads to accidents are more common when workers haven’t had enough sleep, Mavity remarked.
Already the Service Employees International Union has negotiated over shifts and sleep, and industries that operate 24/7 seem ripe for more negotiations about it, he noted. That would include not only health care, but public safety, manufacturing, construction, the restaurant and hospitality industry, and retirement homes.
With so-called lean manufacturing and construction, employers are getting the same amount of work done with fewer employees. The lean process requires changes in work practices and processes, but some employers simply reduce the number of employees and work them ragged.
The brain uses one fourth of the body’s energy, and disposes of waste by sleep, Mavity said. Memory consolidation also happens when people sleep, he added.
Effect of Switching to Daylight Saving Time
A Journal of Applied Psychology study in 2009 showed that losing just one hour of sleep after moving clocks forward in the switch to daylight saving time resulted in more accidents for those in hazardous work environments. The study analyzed the number of injuries reported to the Mine Safety and Health Administration from 1983 to 2006. Over the 24 years, there were 576,292 reported injuries on the job.
On average, there were 3.6 more injuries on the Monday following the switch to daylight saving time compared to other days, and 2,649 more days of work were lost as a result of those injuries—a 68 percent increase in lost workdays. The researchers did not find any significant change in the number and severity of workplace injuries on the Monday after the switch to standard time, when people gain an hour of sleep.
While the switch to daylight saving time may be unavoidable, much sleeplessness on the job is avoidable, according to Mavity, who described the “sleepless culture” in health care as a form of hazing. His wife, a nurse, once was so tired that she fell asleep in the bathroom at work, drifting off so soundly that she got lipstick on her leg where she fell forward, he recalled.
In health care settings, the message needs to be sent that employers are not going to risk getting sued for malpractice, and its employees are to get an adequate amount of sleep, Mavity said. Accreditation groups have established “guidelines,” but those efforts seem to have little effect.
“Few managers take this seriously,” he remarked, saying that needs to change. “There needs to be a connection to preventing fatigue and reviews, mentorship and compensation of management,” he said. HR can “start harping on why employees need rest.”
It’s an easy thing to do, and could help a company avoid accidents, including fatal ones, workers’ compensation claims or even lawsuits for willful negligence, he concluded.
Allen Smith, J.D., is the manager of workplace law content for SHRM. Follow him @SHRMlegaleditor.
Sleepless in Seattle … and Cincinnati and Syracuse, HR Magazine, October 2012