Tired workers are as impaired as drunk drivers and are a danger to themselves and others, according to a new government inquiry.
The federal investigation into sleep health in the workplace found shifts affecting regular sleep are dangerous and costly to the economy, making employees less productive and at greater risk of accidents, injuries and mistakes.
It also found professionals with “safety-critical” jobs, carrying out duties with accuracy and safety, have presented as being less rested, more often. This is because they are more likely to do unusual shifts or be “on call”.
The Bedtime Reading inquiry, released this week, says shift work is linked to conditions associated with poor sleep, including obesity, sleep disorders, mental health conditions and cancer.
It compared being tired with having a blood alcohol reading of 0.05, and said 23 per cent of all car accidents on Victorian Roads are caused by people who haven’t had enough sleep.
Certain types of work, which require high levels of accuracy and concentration, also use shift work as well as night shifts; long shifts and; fly-in-fly-out work that leave workers more prone to accidents due to tiredness.
Jobs in the health sector that require workers to be “on call” for long periods are also likely to leave them affected by fatigue.
All these types of rostering were found to “impact negatively on sleep duration and quality”.
These type of workers can include “occupational drivers, emergency services, health care workers, and machinery operators,” according to the study.
Truckies were also flagged in the inquiry, with some drivers in Western Australia found to be working for 17 hours straight, taking few breaks.
“Being awake for 17 hours is the equivalent of being intoxicated at 0.05 per cent,” sleep researcher Dr Ian Dunican said.
Workers who are tired have a 50 per cent risk of occupational injury, absenteeism and error or safety violation. Of these at-risk individuals, up to 45 per cent work in safety-sensitive occupations such as law enforcement, or public or commercial transport.
The study associates a lack of sleep with impaired performance in the workplace, and says not getting enough sleep leads to workers being less efficient on the job. It also leads to people calling in sick.
The federal inquiry has called on the Government to take action on the major recommendation, that sleep be considered a “third pillar” of healthy living along with diet and exercise.
The researchers have called for a major national public awareness campaign about the importance of sleep and health in the workplace.
This lack of sleep costs business, individuals and the community more broadly, according to The Appleton Institute, who conducted the study. They suggest the costs in the one year period over 2016-2017 was somewhere around $ 24 billion.
“Many Australian workers are sleepy at work, sleepy on the roads on their commute to work, and may experience errors in the workplace or may miss work because they are too tired,” the study says.
Safe Work Australia’s recommends duties for managing fatigue in the workplace at every level, calling it the responsibility of executives and directors, as well as managers and the individual employee themselves.
Shift workers are at much greater risk of accident, including impaired driving performance and impaired decision making and reaction time. This may have serious implications for shift workers in safety-critical occupations.
The Sleep Health Foundation states the accident rate of shift workers is double that of non-shift workers in Australia, and that it “is highly likely that much of this additional risk is sleep-related”.
The Melbourne Sleep Centre further suggests there is a higher rate of Industrial accidents in night time shift workers who struggle with the nocturnal hours.
As well as being at risk of workplace accidents, these workers are also at risk of accidents while driving to and from work.
The inquiry recommended a “nationally consistent” approach to implementing working hours and rest breaks for people who do shift work.
They also suggested a possible need for health screening shift workers, as a way of identifying “at risk” workers where impairment could be dangerous or even fatal.
The inquiry recommended updated national guidelines for all industries that use shift work. They recommend the guidelines be framed around up to date research that will create optimal structures for workers and will promote their alertness and productivity and ensure safety, preventing them from becoming tired and endangering themselves and others.
Approximately 16 per cent of Aussie workers are shift workers, according to The Sleep Health Foundation.
The study also revealed problem industries, including the aviation industry.
While the majority of Australian pilots reported feeling well rested, a “small but significant number of pilots” said they’d only got an amount of sleep that would be associated with impairment.
Half of domestic and international pilots rested less while working than they did at home, and 15 per cent of international pilots said they had no rest at all during their last international flight, according to an Australian Transport Safety Bureau report released in January.