Sleepiness at the switch, a transportation worker poll

As safety firsts go, this is hardly one to brag about…It turns out Steady Eddy, my quintessential pilot, may actually be Sleepy Eddy.

Newly released results from the National Sleep Foundation’s 2012 Sleep in America® poll – the first to specifically study transportation workers – indicate sleepiness is a serious safety concern, especially for commercial pilots and truck drivers.

“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 ten chance of flying on a plane with a sleepy pilot?” says Edward Edens, Ph.D., of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, a sleep poll task force member.

Okay, so it’s a rhetorical question. It still gets my attention.

The poll asked transportation professionals including pilots, train operators, truck, bus, taxi and limo drivers about their sleep habits and work performance. About one-fourth of train engineers/conductors and pilots admitted that sleepiness as measured on the Epworth Sleepiness Scale (Try it. I scored 7, which is in the “normal” range) affected their job performance at least once a week, compared to about one in six non-transportation workers.

Even more disturbing, one in five pilots admitted they have made a serious error, while one in six train operators and truck drivers said they have had a “near miss” due to sleepiness. In addition, sleepy transportation workers report job performance problems about three times more often and report averaging about 45 minutes less sleep per night than their non-sleepy peers.

Not surprisingly, pilots and train operators are significantly more likely than non-transportation workers to say that they have been involved in a car accident due to sleepiness while commuting to and from work. By comparison, studies show about one out of every 10 Americans is likely to fall asleep at an inappropriate time and place, such as during a meeting or while driving.

The 2012 Sleep in America®annual poll was conducted for the National Sleep Foundation by WB&A Market Research using a sample of 1,087 adults above the age of 25. The sample included a control group of 292 non-transportation workers, 202 pilots, 203 truck drivers, 180 rail transportation workers, and 210 bus, taxi and limo drivers.

Many of the respondents cited their schedule as a major contributor to sleep problems, with pilot and train operators the most prone to sleepiness, even though have more time off between shifts than other types of transportation works. Non-transportation workers report having an average of 14.2 hours off between shifts, compared to 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.

“Employers should put more effort into designing work/rest schedules that facilitate sleep and minimize workers exposure to irregular, variable schedule changes,” said task force member Patrick Sherry, Ph.D., a sleep researcher and professor at the University of Denver Intermodal Transportation Institute.

We can all promote safety by practicing good sleep habits ourselves, making reasonable adjustments in the workplace to accommodate employees’ need for adequate rest, and for those of us with children, keeping kiddos on a consistent sleep schedule. There are lots of other sleep tips posted on the National Sleep Foundation website.

Also keep an eye out for the spring edition of Tracker, UL’s occupational health and safety journal. The theme is timely – managing stress, fatigue and sleep disruption in the workplace. I know it contains helpful information and resources because I am worn out from compiling it.

UL’s training management capabilities give you more of the tools you need to satisfy compliance requirements, change behaviors, prevent injuries, and, most importantly, save lives.