Phil Lawlor, Dormeo, looks at the science behind sleeplessness and offers some advice that employers and commercial drivers can use to improve sleep and reduce the risk of an accident
You’d never get behind the wheel while drunk, and a commercial driver who was caught driving under the influence would be more than likely to lose their job. But, did you know that driving while sleep deprived could be just as dangerous? That’s according to a study from UCLA, which found that a lack of sleep can be just as detrimental to our cognitive performance as being over the drink drive limit.
Driving while overtried puts lives at risk, so it’s imperative that commercial drivers get adequate sleep, and that their employers support them. Here, I’ll discuss why it’s so important to get enough rest, what employers have a responsibility to do to help their staff, and what drivers can do to get quality sleep.
Why is sleep so important for drivers?
Most adults need between 7–9 hours of sleep per night, according to the Sleep Council. Getting the right amount of rest is essential for our long-term health and mental performance, and when we don’t get enough over a consistent period, our overall alertness and concentration is badly affected. If we’re starved of sleep for long enough, the neurons in our brain stop functioning properly, leading to temporary mental lapses and reduced reaction times.
Everyone needs quality sleep, but in some occupations, those reaction times can be especially important. If an office worker drifts off on the train or bus during their morning commute, they might miss their stop. But when a driver falls asleep out on the road, the consequences are far more severe. One in six road accidents resulting in death or injury are fatigue-related, and a staggering 40% of these involved were commercial drivers (Brake). Clearly, many people who drive for a living aren’t getting enough sleep, and it’s putting lives at risk.
To further complicate matters, there’s also the issue of shift work. Owing to the nature of the job, many drivers will work through the night or have irregular shift patterns, which can make it hard to stick to a regular sleep routine. This, in turn, can make it tricky to get consistent, restful sleep, even if there’s adequate time allowed between shifts.
What responsibilities do employers have?
Commercial driving is slightly different to other industries in that an employer can’t reasonably be expected to assess every single risk that a driver might face while out on the road. But one thing they can prepare and plan for is employee tiredness.
The simplest way to help with fatigue and lack of sleep is to hold formal training sessions for drivers on how to improve the quality of their rest. By educating their staff to take care of themselves, employers can help to reduce the risk of sleep deprivation causing an accident. Staff should also know what to do if they feel tired while out on the road, and they should be aware of how and when to take breaks to ensure maximum alertness.
Secondly, employers need to be responsible and considerate when arranging driver’s work schedules and shift patterns. Drivers are entitled to a 30-minute break for every 5.5 hours of driving (gov.uk), so this time should be factored in during schedule planning. Employers should be careful not overload a driver’s schedule, and they should bear in mind that employees may need to commute to their shift.
Should sleep deprivation become a chronic issue, there should be measures in place for staff to report it as a medical issue. The employer can then look at ways to support them while they receive treatment, like re-arranging shifts to daylight hours or allowing them to work a different route to reduce their commute.
How can drivers get better sleep?
When it comes to getting enough sleep, there’s only so much an employer can do. As a result, a commercial driver also has a personal responsibility to be well-rested on the job and must do what they can to try and get the best sleep possible.
If a driver is struggling to get the recommended amount of sleep, then there are a number of things that can help:
- Optimising sleeping environment: Blackout blinds or curtains can be especially helpful for shift workers.
- Ensuring bedding is comfortable: A mattress should support the hips and spine completely, and a pillow should keep the neck in alignment with the body. Natural-fibre bed linen can help keep the body cool at night.
- Consider a daylight lamp: Daylight lamps can boost natural waking. They’re especially useful for shift workers, who may need to get up night.
- Reduce blue light before bed: The blue light on our phones and computers interferes with the body’s circadian rhythm, so electricals should be swapped for a book at least an hour before bed.
- Learn more about your unique sleep pattern: We’re all different, so workers should pay attention to their own unique needs. For instance, some people can fall asleep very easily, while other people are more sensitive to caffeine, alcohol or certain foods, which can keep them awake. Workers need to know their bodies and try to avoid things they know will keep them up.
If all these measures fail, or if an employee feels tired on the road, they should take a short nap, which can provide a burst of energy during a long shift. They should also know what they can do if a lack of sleep is becoming a problem, including reporting to their manager and seeking medical treatment.
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