On Sunday, a commuter train derailed on its way to Manhattan, killing four people and injuring more than 60. It’s not clear exactly what caused the accident, although some reports indicate that the conductor may have been nodding off at the wheel. That’s sparked a broader conversation about sleep deprivation as a public health concern.
Indeed, by some researchers’ estimations, “drowsy driving” is just as dangerous as drunk driving. Both can double the risk of a traffic accident, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that about 100,000 of the annual car crashes in the U.S. directly result from driver fatigue. Teens are particularly at risk for driving while drowsy, a reality that’s led some parents to push to start high school later in the day.
The issue is especially serious among transportation workers, who often literally have hundreds of lives in their hands. According to the Huffington Post, multiple public transportation accidents — not just on trains, but also on buses and airplanes — have been attributed to sleep-deprivation over the past decade.
According to a 2012 survey from the National Sleep Foundation, about one fourth of these workers admit that a lack of sleep has affected their recent job performance. And many of them also acknowledge that this issue leads to safety problems. Twenty percent of pilots said they’ve “made a serious error” because they were overtired. Eighteen percent of train operators and 14 percent of truck drivers said they’ve had “near misses” because of it.
This isn’t necessarily because those employees are irresponsible. It’s often because of the particular demands of their jobs, which can require them to work through the night or pick up extra shifts. Many transportation workers say they feel pressured to work within a “culture of exhaustion,” agreeing to overtime shifts no matter how little sleep they’ve gotten. People who work night shifts are more likely to feel fatiugued because their body’s normal sleep cycle is being interrupted. And people who need to work multiple jobs in order to make ends meet tend to get less sleep.
And fatigue-related problems on the job, which cost the United States an estimated $18 billion a year in terms of lost productivity, aren’t limited to the transportation sector.
According to the CDC’s National Health Interview Survey, home health aides actually represent the most sleep-deprived workers in the nation. Doctors, nurses, and paramedics also tend to battle fatigue. A recent survey of critical care nurses working in Canada found that about 16 percent of them have made errors affecting their patients that were directly related to their fatigue. In the U.S., 20 percent of nurses report that they’ve accidentally fallen asleep on duty.
Chronic loss of sleep carries other health risks, too. It’s been linked to obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, mood disorders, and a shorter lifespan.