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July 13, 2012
Transportation workers and sleep problems: the hidden risks

The recent National Sleep Foundation’s (NSF) 2012 Sleep in America® poll is the first poll to ask transportation professionals, including pilots, train operators, truck, bus, taxi, and limo drivers about their sleep habits and work performance. The results of the poll are striking, since respondents are responsible for the lives of those they transport.

Reporting sleep-related problems

About one-fourth of train operators (26%) and pilots (23%) admit that sleepiness has affected their job performance at least once a week, compared with about one in six nontransportation workers (17%).

Perhaps more disturbing, a significant number say that sleepiness has caused safety problems on the job. One in five pilots (20%) admit that they have made a serious error, and one in six train operators (18%) and truck drivers (14%) say that they have had a near miss due to sleepiness.

Sleepiness has also played a role in respondents’ car accidents commuting to and from work. Pilots and train operators are significantly more likely than nontransportation workers (6% each, compared with 1%) to say that they have been involved in a car accident because of sleepiness while commuting.

“Driving home from work after a long shift is associated with crashes due to sleepiness,” says Dr. Sanjay Patel, sleep researcher at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. “We should all be concerned that pilots and train operators report car crashes due to sleepiness at a rate that is six times greater than that of other workers.”

Sleep dissatisfaction

Among all workers surveyed, train operators and pilots report the most workday sleep dissatisfaction. Almost two-thirds of train operators (57%) and one-half of pilots (50%) say they rarely or never get a good night’s sleep on work nights, compared with 44% of truck drivers and 42% of nontransportation workers. Bus, taxi, and limo drivers report the best workday sleep satisfaction, with about one-third (29%) saying they rarely or never get a good night’s sleep on work nights.

“The margin of error in these professions is extremely small. Transportation professionals need to manage sleep to perform at their best,” says David Cloud, CEO of the NSF. “As individuals and employers, we need to know more about how sleep improves performance.”

Sleepiness common for all workers

Roughly 1 in10 Americans say they are likely to fall asleep at an inappropriate time and place, such as at a meeting or while driving. The poll included a validated assessment tool used by doctors to determine whether a person is “sleepy.” Anyone who suffers from excessive sleepiness should seek professional help to identify underlying conditions. This study finds that 11% of pilots, train operators, bus, taxi, and limo drivers and 8% of truck drivers as well as 7% of nontransportation workers are “sleepy.”

“We found that although pilots are especially focused on obtaining adequate sleep, one in ten can still be classified as ‘sleepy.’ This is not acceptable. Who among us wants to take a one in 10 chance of flying on a plane with a sleepy pilot?” says CPT Edward Edens, PhD, of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

Schedules don’t allow time for sleep

Many transportation workers cite their schedule as a major contributor to sleep problems. Almost one-half of train operators (44%) and more than one-third of pilots (37%) report that their current work schedule does not allow adequate time for sleep, compared with about one-fourth of nontransportation workers and truck drivers (27% each) and one-fifth of bus, taxi, and limo drivers (20%).

In general, transportation professionals work more varied shifts than other workers, which may play a role in their sleep problems. Only 6% of pilots and 47% of train operators say they work the same work schedule each day, compared with 76% of nontransportation workers.

Time off between shifts may play a role in workers’ sleepiness. Nontransportation workers report having an average of 14.2 hours off between shifts, compared with 12.9 hours for pilots; 12.5 for train operators; 12.1 for truck drivers; and 11.2 hours for bus, taxi, and limo drivers. If given 1 more hour off between work shifts, over one-half of pilots (56%) and train operators (54%) report that they would use it for sleep.

“Transportation workers experience considerable variability in the days they work, the times they work, and the amount of time off between shifts. This makes it difficult for such workers to maintain regular sleep/wake schedules, which can, in turn, make it difficult for these workers to maintain alertness on the job. Employers should put more effort into designing work/rest schedules that facilitate sleep and minimize workers exposure to irregular, variable schedule changes,” says Patrick Sherry, PhD, a sleep researcher and professor from the University of Denver Intermodal Transportation Institute.

“Transportation workers have challenging schedules that compete with the natural need for sleep. While I’m impressed that transportation professionals nap when they are off duty, we need to better understand how to use naps to reduce sleep deprivation and overcome scheduling issues,” says Thomas Balkin, PhD, a sleep researcher from the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

For more information, go to www.sleepfoundation.org.

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