Falling asleep on the job

Brain monitoring, fatigue monitoring technology part of new frontier for safety-sensitive workplaces
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/30/2015

Instead of drugs, alcohol or ineffective training, the biggest safety risk at a workplace might just be tired workers.

Fatigue is actually four times more likely to contribute to workplace impairment than drugs and alcohol, and a fatigued worker is at a 70 per cent greater risk of injury than a non-fatigued worker, according to the Public Services Health and Safety Association (PSHSA).


But monitoring employee’s fatigue levels is no longer reliant on guesswork, according to Glenn Cullen, vice-president of corporate programs and product development at PSHSA in Toronto. Fatigue monitoring technology can give employers and employees thorough, robust data on sleep patterns, peak performance times versus non-peak, and even how fatigued a worker is on the job.

One of these technologies is the Readiband, worn on the wrist to monitor sleep, activity levels and fatigue. PSHSA is currently participating in a research study using the bands to help better understand the impact of fatigue and design effective solutions. 


“Fatigue is part of a larger system within an organization’s safety management system,” says Cullen. “The technology itself can measure the level of fatigue of a worker, and peak performance and non-peak performance time. And the key piece here is it’s effective at a 93.7 per cent rate, which is unique in the industry.”

Monitoring sleep patterns


The band provides reports back to the employers or employee.


“Most importantly, it only tracks sleep. So the Readiband doesn’t contain any GPS or location sensors… there’s no microphone, there’s no camera, there’s no light sensors. It simply provides information around sleep patterns,” he says.


This technology was developed in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Defence, says Kim Slade, director of product development at PSHSA in Toronto. 


“It’s currently applied in two different areas. The first is industry, so they have a number of case studies… they started in the military, and then they worked with the U.S. Department of Transportation, they worked in forestry, in sawmill and logging operations, they worked in mining in Australia, with Harvard Medical School around health care and monitoring surgical residents’ fatigue.” 


Readiband’s developers have also worked with Air Canada and with high-performance athletes. 


Those sectors are just a few areas where sleep-monitoring technology can have obvious benefits and applications, says Slade — the uses are transferrable to many sectors, such as mining. In Ontario, for instance, there was recently a mining review done by the chief prevention officer’s office. 


“Fatigue was identified as a hazard that hasn’t really received the attention that it needs to have. And they specifically recommended that we look at irregular shifts and schedules, learn from progress in other sectors and understand the extent to which fatigue plays a role in injuries and fatalities,” she says. 


Monitoring sleep and having solid data around that could go a long way toward building safer work schedules and shift schedule optimization, says Cullen. 


“Understanding the sources of fatigue and determining what can be done to mitigate that risk can include everything from shift scheduling to sleep disorders,” he says. “The technology can also be used to perform objective post-accident or incident analysis to determine if fatigue was a factor.


“The other two pieces which add to the technology, and something that the (Technical Standards and Safety Authority) is bringing to the workers and employers in Ontario, is around training for supervisors to recognize signs of fatigue, and how to have conversations with workers around that risk — and also training for workers to recognize the signs and what they can do about fatigue.”


Monitoring brain activity 

Another interesting form of fatigue monitoring is tracking an employee’s actual brain activity. With just a few sensors on the scalp — and they can be put in an unobtrusive baseball cap, if desired — you can get a pretty good estimate of people’s level of drowsiness, according to Chris Berka, CEO and co-founder of Advanced Brain Monitoring in San Diego. The sensors measure fluctuations in the brain’s level of electrical activity. And the signals for “sleepy” are pretty much universal. 


“Ultimately, once we get to a certain point, we all show the same brain signatures, if you will, that are associated with fatigue and sleep onset,” says Berka.  “With relatively good sensors and some good computing power, you can actually compute that in real time. So the beauty of that is you can give someone an alert or an alarm, hopefully before they get to the point where they’re going to actually start to have errors of judgment or have safety-related problems.”


However, one issue researchers are still considering is when to give employees a warning. 


“There’s a big question mark as to how early you actually can give someone a warning. And if you wait too long, and they’re already starting to fall asleep, chances are there’s not too much you can do at this point. So the trick of this is trying to identify early in advance the risk of fatigue before you start to cause fatigue-related errors,” says Berka. 


“You can give someone a warning or an alarm — there’s a dozen different things that you can do depending on what sort of workplace you’re in.”


If the drowsiness is mild and not related to chronic sleep deprivation, a break for some caffeine, jumping jacks or exercise might do the trick for a tired employee. But if a person is chronically sleep-deprived, there’s no quick fix, she says. 


“When you get to that point, the only intervention that works is a nap or sleep,” says Berka. 


“That’s kind of the flaw in the logic in some of these devices. Yes, we can probably give you a warning before you actually fall asleep at the wheel or in a safety-sensitive position, but if you’re already sleep-deprived for whatever reason, there’s no substitute, there’s no intervention expect for a nap.”


Some organizations — the U.S. military, for example — have expressed interest in having a supervisor or commander who is actually monitoring the brains of workers, says Berka. 


“That’s certainly something that can be done. That raises a lot of issues, as you can imagine, with unions and Big Brother and intrusiveness. But that at least offers the option of a third party intervening instead of relying on the individual… to take action on their own.” 


Who decides when a worker is too tired to work safely is a question that remains to be answered. But there’s one thing that’s non-negotiable, according to Berka. 


“If you have any kind of a chronic sleep disorder, it doesn’t matter how many alarms I give you. I could give you an electric shock and it’s not going to be able to wake you up if you haven’t been sleeping because of an undiagnosed sleep disorder,” she says.  


“For safety-sensitive workplaces, it’s absolutely essential, before you consider doing any kind of drowsiness monitoring, that you have a very comprehensive health and wellness program that includes not only assessment for sleep apnea, which is very treatable, but also what we call sleep hygiene training which just trains you to be aware of your sleep and to make sure that you’re getting as much sleep as is feasible.


 “Some of these devices can only give you one small picture, and they’re useful — but they should be used as part of an entire health and wellness program.” 

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