By Timothy J Hillegonds04 March 2008
In a typical scene around my parents house during the holidays, I walk into the living room after Sunday dinner and see my father sitting in his chair – feet up and football game on the television loud enough to do a small amount of hearing damage – and seconds after popping his eyes open and seeing me he says, “I wasn't really asleep, I was just meditating on unconsciousness.”
It is a comical way to put it, and I laugh every time I hear it, but fatigue and sleep apnea, and America's every growing appetite for working harder, faster, and longer are starting to turn some heads. Experts have studied sleeping patterns and the like for about as long as people have been doing it, but when the automobile, and later the truck, were introduced to society, these studies took on a whole new meaning. Sleeping and the lack thereof all of the sudden took a prominent role in accident causation studies.
Fatigued drivers were falling asleep at the wheel and people were dying. In 2001 the Washington D.C. National Sleep Foundation (NSF) took a poll that revealed that 63% of American adults do not receive the recommended eight hours of sleep necessary for good health, safety, and optimal performance – an alarming percentage considering the consequences of fatigue which include, among other things, higher instances of motor vehicle and work-related accidents, decreased productivity, and adverse health effects. Daniel O'Hearn, a John Hopkins University sleep disorder specialist, observed, “People don't respect sleep enough. They feel they can do more – have more time for work and family – by allowing themselves less time for sleep.” But we couldn't be more wrong.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, fatigue is attributed to 30 to 40% of all fatal heavy truck accidents, and there are more than 100,000 accidents on our nation's highways that are the direct result of sleep deprivation.
To take it a step further, perhaps the most noteworthy disaster resulting from fatigue is the Exxon Valdez Alaskan oil spill. On March 2, 1989, 10.8 million gallons of oil (this number is disputed) spilled into the Prince William Sound near Valdez, AK. The third mate, who shared a substantial amount of the blame for the accident, had only had six hours of sleep over the previous forty-eight hours. The National Transportation Safety Board found that “the third mate failed to properly maneuver the vessel, due to the ship being on autopilot.” Consequently, the spill generated a cleanup bill in 1989 alone of almost $2 billion – an unbelievably expensive lesson on the importance of sleep. But if we take that lesson back down to the level of the everyday Joe, the kind of guys that are not commandeering multimillion dollar ships through icebergs off the tip of the Alaskan coast, we can still see that fatigue is seriously affecting us. So much so that studies have confirmed that sleep-deprived drivers can be just as dangerous as drunk drivers.
A study by the British Journal of Occupation and Environmental Medicine found that people who drive after being awake for 17 to 19 hours performed worse than those with a blood alcohol level of .05 percent. Statistics confirm that the only way to truly improve the safety of US highways is to significantly reduce the number of sleep-deprived drivers.
So what does this mean to us? It means that as employers we need to be cognizant of what is really going on and who is really being affected. Being overtired might seem like an inconvenience and sorry excuse for poor performance but it is much deeper and more complex than that.
Consider this: Since the advent of the light bulb people sleep 500 hours less each year. Before modern technology revolutionized the daily time allotments we gave to specific activities, people enjoyed a daily “sleep diet” of about 10 hours. With most Americans, getting between five and seven hours of sleep at night, it seems that our current “sleep diet” is noticeably less than evolution intended. And maybe that is okay if you work in a library or lick postage stamps for a living but when you are hauling a D8 coast to coast, it just doesn't cut it.
When you think about it, it's the same message that we preach to our employees. Be responsible. Be accountable. Work hard. Care. But we need to take our own suggestions and apply them to our managerial roles as well. If your best driver, your most trusted employee has not gotten the full 10 hours of rest he needs as required by the FMCSR, you have got to keep him home. Yeah, it might be an inconvenience. Yes, he might be the only driver available. But when he is finally rested and he gets back on the road and makes another successful trip, you will know you did the right thing.
In essence, it is saying the words “sleep tight”...and really meaning them.