The Danger of Sleep Deprivation – and What It Means for Construction Workers

Howard Raphaelson
Partner, Attorney
Sleep Deprived Construction Worker

“Sleep deprivation can kill” was the conclusion of an in-depth study reported a few years ago by Lesley Stahl on the television program, “60 Minutes.” Researchers told Stahl that getting enough sleep is as vital to survival as getting enough food. The conclusion of the scientists who conducted the study was pretty powerful concerning sleep: “Go without it and you could die.”

Fast-forward six years and scientists still conclude sleep deprivation is a literal killer. If anything, they are now saying they underestimated the dangerous effects of sleep deprivation after conducting what is  According to research published in November 2019 by Michigan State University, this study is one of the largest sleep studies to date and builds upon on earlier research on sleep deprivation.

"Our research showed that sleep deprivation doubles the odds of making place keeping errors and triples the number of lapses in attention, which is startling," said Kimberly M. Fenn, one of the study’s authors. "Sleep-deprived individuals need to exercise caution in absolutely everything that they do, and simply can't trust that they won't make costly errors. Oftentimes -- like when behind the wheel of a car -these errors can have tragic consequences."

Research previously published by the Harvard Medical School, which surveyed more than 10,000 people in the U.S., found that that insomnia could be linked to 274,000 workplace accidents and errors each year. If you know that your lack of sleep has an impact on your level of accuracy and productivity at work, you are not alone.

Recently, the federal government has recognized the need for cross-country truck drivers to get enough sleep. Drivers are required to keep a log of the amount of time they drive, when they take breaks, and when they stop in order to sleep. If they come to an inspection station and the log shows they have not had enough sleep, they have to pull over and sleep for a while before they can continue on their trip.

The New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) recently placed restrictions on how much time drivers for hire can actually be behind the wheel before they have to sign off and go get some sleep. The Commission substantiated its new rules with findings that “driving while fatigued can be as dangerous as driving after heavy drinking.”

Experts say one in 10 injuries on the job is related to sleep deprivation. Furthermore, the National Sleep Foundation, says sleep deprivation increases the likelihood of a workplace accident by 70%.

It may be time to study sleep-deprivation in the workplace, particularly in the construction industry. The accident rate nationwide and in New York City is high, with thousands of construction workers injured or killed every year.

The Construction Industry Injury and Fatality Statistics

The U.S. Occupational and Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports 21.1% percent of all accidental deaths in the workplace are in the construction industry. Falls account for 33.5 percent of all construction accidents. The rest of the accidents are caused by workers being hit by a falling object, being electrocuted, or getting caught in-between objects. OSHA refers to these as “the fatal four.”

In New York City, the need for construction workers is booming. In May 2019, the New York State Comptroller’s Office reported the city’s five boroughs, along with Long Island, northern New Jersey, and the Lower Hudson Valley accounted for 5.1% construction jobs in the nation in 2018. Sadly, every day many of these construction workers are injured or killed on the job. They are asked to climb ladders, work in cold weather, and on scaffolding. They walk out on beams and crawl across roofs. They work with power tools, from simple hammers to the complex, dangerous equipment. They have to make quick decisions. There is evidence that sleep deprivation contributes to a greater risk of workplace injuries and construction site accidents.

According to OSHA, a normal work shift is generally considered to be a work period of no more than eight consecutive hours during the day, five days a week with at least an eight-hour rest, with any shift that incorporates more continuous hours, requires more consecutive days of work or requires work during the evening being considered extended or unusual.

While extended or unusual work shifts are often more stressful physically, mentally, and emotionally, there is no current specific OSHA Standard to address the circumstances extended shifts can lead to such fatigue or sleep deprivation.

Dangers of Sleep Deprivation Construction Workers Face

An article published specifically for construction workers discusses the dangers of sleep deprivation in the workforce in general and discusses ways in which sleep-deprivation can affect construction workers. The dangerous behaviors of sleep-deprived individuals include:

  • Poor communication. They often stop mid-sentence and forget what they were saying. They may drop the volume of their voice, making it difficult for others to hear.
  • Impaired motor skills. Sleep deprivation has similar effects of alcohol intoxication in that people afflicted have poorer hand-eye, coordination, depth perception, and balance. On a construction site, this can equate to tragedy.
  • Slow response time. Reflexes are slow. Sleep-deprived people are not even aware of this effect on them.
  • Easily distracted. Affected workers have trouble focusing on the task at hand. They pay little attention to details.
  • Impairment when operating machinery. The trucking industry has recognized that driving while sleep-deprived has the same consequences as drunk driving. Federal rules regulate how many hours truck drivers are allowed to drive before being forced to stop and sleep. But this message seems not to have gotten to the construction industry, where workers have to operate complex machinery, like forklifts, cranes, or even a simple electric drill.
  • Overall increased number of errors. These errors are generally of two types: 1) errors of commission, which mean the act leads to harm to the worker or to others who are nearby; or 2) errors of omission, which means a failure to perform a necessary task.
  • Poor assimilation and memory. The exhausted worker will have trouble understanding a new way to do a certain task and may have trouble remembering the sequence in which tasks are to be performed. New information is harder to retain for someone who is sleep-deprived.
  • Inability to deal with stress. Workers who don’t get adequate sleep can have a direct effect on mood and stress levels. This can have a ripple effect on how a worker does their job and can contribute to a negative work environment or, worse, a serious accident.
  • Inappropriate moods. There is a tendency to have outbursts due to irritability, impatience, or a simple unwillingness or inability to maintain control.
  • Falling asleep on the job. Exhausted workers scheduled for long shifts may begin to lose the ability to stay awake, either dozing, taking a cat nap, or eyes simply closing. Any number of disasters can occur in a matter of minutes when someone isn’t able to stay awake to perform their job. Workers performing repetitive jobs are even higher at risk of dozing off.
  • Increased incidences of risk-taking behavior. Brain imaging studies show actual changes in the sleep-deprived brain in regions that control rational thinking and good decision making. This increases the chances that a person in the construction industry is making risky decisions. The worker may gamble “in scenarios in which the losses outweigh the benefits.” This can be likened to a person who is working while inebriated.
  • Unable to quickly make any necessary adjustments. Workers may be unable to perform requested tasks, resulting in danger to themselves and others.
  • Lasting effects of sleep deprivation. Only one night of “total sleep deprivation” can affect a person’s ability to function normally for up to two weeks. If the problem is chronic, this can lead to significant health issues.
  • Improper safety enforcement and major injury. Human error is always a risk, however, sleep deprivation increases those risks significantly. Industry disasters, such as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, have been linked to sleep deprivation. Safety measures must be able to be followed to be effective, but if someone is tired, they might miss an important step or checkpoint.

Getting an adequate amount of sleep is not only important for your overall health but also necessary to maintain the skills you need at work such as concentration, memory, coordination, and operating complex machinery. Being aware of your sleep habits and establishing positive rest habits will help make you a safer employee. Employers and their employees should learn to recognize the signs of sleep deprivation to increase the safety factor on construction worksites.

  • Weariness
  • Sluggishness
  • Giddiness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Headaches and body pain
  • Mood swings and/or emotional outbursts
  • Weight gain
  • Problems with balance
  • Loss of hand-eye coordination
  • Forgetfulness
  • Paranoia

If any worker experiences these types of symptoms, a supervisor or the employer should be notified immediately.

Construction workers that have been injured in a construction accident may be eligible for financial compensation and workers' compensation regardless of fault. If you’ve been injured, contact a construction accident lawyer at our firm to learn more about your legal options.

Howard Raphaelson
Partner, Attorney
Howard A. Raphaelson founded Raphaelson & Levine Law Firm, P.C. in 1992 after graduating from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City, NY. With over thirty years of experience as a personal injury lawyer, he has earned a trusted reputation from his peers, judges, and top leaders, including recognition among the top 5% injury attorneys as a “Super Lawyer” (Thomson Reuters) and “New York’s Best Lawyers” (New York Magazine).

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