British Columbia

'You pay a health price for it': When fatigue can become fatal at work

Sleep deprivation and fatigue can have devastating consequences for workers in B.C.

By working the overnight shift, an employee's accident risk goes up 11 per cent, according to research

Working overnight shifts increases accident risk by 11 per cent, according to the US Department of Transportation. (Getty Images)

Pat Byrne was employed as a safety consultant at WorksafeBC when he received a phone call from a family member. The message was tragic: his nephew had fallen asleep at the wheel while driving home from work, driven off a cliff and been killed.

Byrne couldn't help but recognize that it was a work-related accident.

"I knew intuitively that working long hours was particularly dangerous, but I couldn't prove it — so I needed to go out and find the research," he said on CBC's BC Almanac.

And the research confirms what Byrne suspected: lack of sleep is one of the biggest workplace safety hazards, and it can be fatal.

According to WorksafeBC, the risk of making mistakes at work increases significantly if workers sleep less than the average 7.5 to 8.5 hours or are awake for more than 17 consecutive hours.

And a study done by the U.S. Department of Transportation found that just working the night shift alone increases a person's accident risk by 11 per cent.

"What we've known over the years now is the less you sleep, the slower your reaction time is — and so that leads to accidents," said Byrne, who is now a sleep consultant and a technology advisor to the Stanford University Medical School.

"Being awake at night is just not natural. So when you're awake at night, you pay a price for it. You pay a health price for it and a safety price for it," he said.

Drowsy driving

But the consequences vary from profession to profession.

Byrne says industries that offer erratic night-shift work are the most dangerous — in particular, small-town paramedics, who tend to only work part-time and have day jobs.

He cites an accident that occurred in 2010, when fatigue claimed the lives of two paramedics on Vancouver Island. 

Jo-Ann Fuller, 59, and Ivan Polivka, 65, died after their ambulance drove over a low concrete barrier and tumbled down a 33-metre-high cliff into Kennedy Lake.

The coroner's report concluded that Fuller likely fell asleep at the wheel while driving to Tofino.

After the accident, the B.C. Ambulance Service committed to changing the employee scheduling information system to ensure staff had adequate time away from work to rest.

Byrne says fatigue also adversely affects the trucking and airline industry, as well as drivers in general. According to ICBC, driving while drowsy is akin to driving while under the influence of alcohol, and roughly a third of B.C. drivers admit to nodding off while driving.

He says he's unsure if provincial governments and organizations like WorksafeBC understand the full magnitude of the issue.

"I'd like the governments at all levels and public health officials to actually have a serious conversation about what's going on with sleep deprivation and what they can do about it — providing better health facilities, better health care and better education at all levels," he said.

Sleep monitors

Following his time at WorksafeBC, Byrne founded Fatigue Science — a sleep opitimization organization that aims to reduce fatigue-induced risks in the workplace.

The organization even works with sports teams, including the Vancouver Canucks, to help enhance their performance by managing rest. Byrne spent seven years as the team's sleep doctor.

"The Canucks have one of the worst travel schedules of any professional sports team in North America — it's not an excuse, its just the nature or the geography," said Byrne.

Pat Byrne was the Vancouver Canucks sleep doctor for seven years, which included their 2011 Stanley Cup run. ((Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press))

Byrne and his team utilized FDA sleep monitors on players to determine how travel affected their performance. Then, they developed a sleep schedule to ensure players were getting enough rest.

"We were able to really determine, based on travel and jet lag, where they were going to have difficulty in particular games."

He said the same technology is used by the U.S. military to measure soldier's fatigue and reaction times.

This article is part of Wired and Tired, a new CBC radio series explores how lack of sleep affects people of all ages

With files from CBC's BC Almanac and The Early Edition

To listen to the full interview, click on the audio labelled: Sleep-deprived workers can be at risk