Perils of sleep deprivation painfully driven home

Fatigue can exert an enormous toll on employees and business
By Uyen Vu
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/04/2005

The driver behind the wheel of the Porter Trucking tractor-trailer said he felt fit and rested on the afternoon of May 2, 2002, when he set out from his Central Manitoba home with a long drive to Calgary ahead of him.

He had just woken up from a 30-minute nap. That afternoon, as he approached a railway crossing near Firdale, Man., about 10 minutes after setting out, he saw a school bus coming from the opposite direction and pulled over to make way for the bus to pass. Then, shifting into second gear, he proceeded through the crossing, looking to his left first, then in the left-hand mirror, then to his right. That was when he saw an oncoming train.

In the crash that ensued, when the locomotive struck the rear of the trailer, 21 cars derailed, their loads of plastic pellets, dangerous goods and ethylene glycol feeding a flaming tower that took more than two days to put out. No one was hurt, but 156 residents nearby had to leave their homes for two days. In an investigation into the accident, the federal Transportation Safety Board found that fatigue might have played a role.

In the two days before, the investigators found, the driver had pulled two back-to-back all-nighters criss-crossing from Portage la Prairie, Man., to Swift Current, Sask., then back to Winnipeg the morning of the accident. The only rest he had, on top of the nap at home, was an eight-hour sleep in his berth at Swift Current the day before.

The Transportation Safety Board released its report on the derailment in October, just as the trucking industry and truckers’ unions were about to lock horns over hours of work. At issue was whether drivers should have 16 or 18 hours a day within which they could do their maximum 13 hours of driving.

As illustrated by the Firdale accident, fatigue and sleep deprivation can exert an enormous toll — in people’s lives and livelihood, in damaged goods and delivery hold-ups, in insurance and disability leave, in environmental damage, to name but a few outcomes. And yet, how to address the problem through regulation is, as seen in the hours-of-service dispute, a difficult undertaking at best.

Jeffrey Lipsitz, medical director of the Sleep Disorder Centre of Metropolitan Toronto and the Sleep Disorder Centre – Ottawa, said the question of fatigue is one of the most under-recognized workplace issues today. People are not getting enough sleep, whether because they have too much to get done in a day or because they’re stressed and anxious. They may be using drugs and alcohol, they may have a bad diet, they may work out too much or too little — all factors which affect the quality of their sleep.

Drawing from his experience consulting for employers, Lipsitz said the problem of fatigue concerns organizations in a range of industries.

“Take a large financial institution that’s processing cheques overnight. You have someone somewhere putting a decimal in the wrong place and that mistake can cost you. Or take the casinos in Ontario, which are 24/7 operations. You have blackjack dealers who are on a rotating shift who may count the cards wrong or count the money wrong,” said Lipsitz.

“This really is a concern for employers, who wouldn’t think twice about sending home someone who comes to work impaired by drugs or alcohol. And yet they have employees come to work impaired because of inadequate sleep, and who may be just as likely to make mistakes or cause an accident,” said Lipsitz.

In terms of biology, the answer to fatigue is simple: get enough sleep. “If scientists were making the regulations, they would say it’s more important to regulate how much sleep people get than to regulate how much they work,” said Patrick Sherry, a psychologist and associate professor at Denver University specializing in fatigue and other occupational health issues. But clearly, regulating sleep is not an option.

What’s more, fatigue is difficult to measure or even detect. “There’s a disconnect between a person saying, ‘I’m not tired,’ and that person’s ability to predict how quickly he can react,” said Sherry. In a test for reaction time and alertness, someone may do quite poorly and still say they feel fine, he noted.

But if a subjective gauge of fatigue isn’t reliable, an objective measure doesn’t exist. “People always ask if there’s a magic number, as in how long can people stay awake for or how long can people stay working for?” said Sherry. The answer depends on so many contextual factors. Are the workers fit? Are they young? Are they sitting on the job or are they walking around? More importantly, are they working their eight hours in the day or the in middle of the night? If at night, are they on a rotating shift or are they on a regular schedule?

People are almost “hard-wired” to sleep at night, said Sherry. The period between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. is a time period when traffic accidents are likelier to happen. When a person is on a night shift, he may get enough sleep, but still be susceptible to fatigue because his circadian rhythm is out of wack.

“A person may have been off for a week, he’s well-rested, but on the first day back he gets into an accident. Well, if you look at it carefully, you’ll find that his body has to adjust again to the night shift,” said Sherry.

Given the complexities around the question of fatigue, it becomes clear why discussions around work hours in the transport industry can be rife with debate.

This fall, as Parliament reviews the 17-year-old regulations on hours of service for commercial vehicle drivers, the trucking industry body, the Canadian Trucking Alliance, recommended that drivers be given a window of 18 hours to do their work. (It has since dropped the recommendation, citing lack of support.) Unions such as the Teamsters Canada call for the window to be limited to 16 hours, which gives drivers more hours at the end of the day to rest.

That doesn’t mean drivers will be allowed to drive for 18 or 16 hours. Driving time will be capped at 13 hours a day, but drivers may be able to spread that time over a period of 16 or 18 hours. Due to long delays at border crossings into the United States — a driver may idle up to seven hours at certain crossings — proponents of the 18-hour window said truckers need the greatest possible flexibility.

Both sides cited safety to make their arguments. Raynald Marchand, manager of traffic safety and training for the Canada Safety Council, is an advocate of the 16-hour window, but he sees good arguments for both options.

On the one hand, if a driver reaches the time limit while still on the road, the result will not only be delayed delivery of cargo, it will also mean the driver is away from home for an extra day. And if he’s forced to pull over to the side of the road, the driver may still not get undisturbed sleep if he has to worry about cargo in the trailer.

On the other hand, allowing the driver to work up to 18 hours a day can compromise highway safety. While it may be true that the driver spends much of that time waiting to be cleared to cross the border, he’s more likely to be at the local cafe chatting with other drivers, not sleeping, said Marchand.

Both Lipsitz and Sherry caution against regulations that are likely to produce unintended consequences, particularly in an area as difficult to address as fatigue in the transport industry. If hours of service regulations cause someone to park the truck in the day and resume driving at night, or if they cause people to be away from home longer, then the regulations may be causing more problems than they solve.

“Many of us believe that rather than looking only to regulation for answer, there should be more education around sleep and fatigue. If we’ve never bothered to teach individuals — and that includes drivers, dispatchers and managers — if they don’t have a sense of how important this issue is, then all the regulation in the world would only go so far.”

Add Comment

  • *
  • *
  • *
  • *