Drowsy driving & worker safety
Truckers and bus drivers aren’t the only workers at risk for driving while fatigued
- Employers can combat drowsy driving by training workers about its risks and providing safer travel options such as bus or rail.
- A new employment landscape has prompted more workers to take on “mega commutes,” defined by the Census Bureau as traveling 50-plus miles and 90-plus minutes.
- The scope of fatigue-related crashes is difficult to quantify because police reports may not always account for drowsy driving, and no blood test can measure sleepiness.
At the end of a grueling 24-hour shift at a natural gas site in a remote part of Texas, Daniel Zambrano climbed behind the wheel of a van carrying six of his co-workers.
Before long, fatigue started to overtake Zambrano. The 26-year-old from Kilgore, TX, allegedly dozed off as he drove along Highway 72, and the full-size van slammed into the back of a school bus that had stopped to pick up a child.
The front of the van was crushed, and the vehicle toppled onto its passenger side. Zambrano and two others were killed. The van tore a hole into the rear right corner of the school bus, but no children were injured.
The crash is one example of drowsy driving and its implications on worker safety, said Stephanie Pratt, coordinator of the NIOSH Center for Motor Vehicle Safety. Pratt was one of several panelists who addressed a National Transportation Safety Board forum last October to discuss what employers can do to combat the deadly problem.
Pratt said drowsy driving affects many non-professional drivers in oil and gas, home health care, sales, shift work and other areas.
“I think the most important message you can send is that this is not just about heavy trucks and buses,” Pratt said during an interview with Safety+Health. “This is a risk that anybody can suffer. It is not necessarily a matter of your being sleep-deprived for years on end. If you just haven’t had enough sleep in the last 24 hours, you’re still going to be drowsy no matter how well you slept the past two weeks.”
Although estimates vary, driver fatigue may contribute to more than 100,000 crashes a year, then-NTSB member Mark Rosekind said during the forum. (Rosekind was confirmed by the Senate to lead the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Dec. 16.) Conservative estimates peg drowsy driving as a contributing factor in about 1,000 fatalities a year, while a report from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety estimates that more than 6,000 drowsy-driving crashes a year result in at least one fatality.
The numbers are “staggering” and show the need for employers to develop policies on drowsy driving, said Dr. Charles Czeisler, director of the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School and chairman of the National Sleep Foundation.
“The data are really quite compelling,” Czeisler said. “It’s just such a barometer of the extent to which we are sleep-deprived as a nation.”
Workers at risk
The oil and gas industry is particularly vulnerable to drowsy driving because workers often endure extended shifts and make lengthy trips to and from worksites, Pratt said.
“Company towns aren’t going up around these sites,” Pratt said. “What’s happening is that a temporary work camp is set up, and workers may still choose to make a commute of two to three hours.”
Such travel times easily fit into the category of a “mega commute,” which is defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as traveling 90 or more minutes and 50 or more miles to work. Almost 600,000 full-time workers are mega commuters, according to a 2013 report by the Census Bureau, which cited a changing employment landscape as a reason why people are commuting longer for job opportunities.
NIOSH plans to survey oil and gas workers in the near future about their commuting behaviors and on-the-job driving requirements, Pratt said. She noted that employers with sales fleets, home health care fleets and other traveling workers also could do their part to limit drowsy driving among workers.
“I think the key is allowing workers the flexibility to self-regulate on fatigue within certain limits,” Pratt said.
Depending on the circumstance, employers also could reduce the risk of drowsy driving with thoughtful planning.
“At the most basic level, you question whether you need to travel,” Pratt said. “And then if you do need to travel, then think about taking safer modes of transportation like air and rail, not motor vehicles.
“Employers can set policies to have periodic rest breaks, and that would have to be factored into scheduling. When workers have time pressures, they need to be allowed to take a rest break if they are tired, and employers can also authorize workers to stop for the night if they’re drowsy or fatigued.”
Experts recommend that employers develop and implement fatigue management policies, which could include:
- Training workers about the risks of drowsy driving
- Providing safer travel options, such as by bus, from remote worksites
- Empowering workers to seek overnight accommodations when they are too tired to drive safely Offering voluntary screening for sleep apnea
- Implementing voluntary, structured napping programs during parts of the work shift
Czeisler said employers could develop policies similar to the European Union’s Working Time Directive, which requires a minimum daily rest period of 11 consecutive hours and at least one full day off work per week. “When people are working 10, 20, 30, 40 consecutive days or nights, they build up unsustainably high levels of fatigue, which greatly increase the risk of fatigue-related crashes,” he said.
Policies could help protect employees who have logged long hours on the job. Similarly, employers can protect workers who take cross-country or transatlantic flights by requiring that they rest before driving from the airport.
Such policies could help put an end to “completely preventable tragedies,” Czeisler said.
“Employers don’t think about providing transportation when there are circumstances in which people have to be awake for extended durations of time,” Czeisler said. “Let’s say there’s a project at work, and people end up … staying up all night completing it. It’s the responsibility of the employer at that point to provide the employee’s transportation home instead of having them get in their cars and risk their lives.”
The scope of drowsy driving can be difficult to quantify because fatigue cannot be objectively measured, Pratt said.
No blood test can determine a driver’s sleepiness. No guarantee exists that “fatigue” will end up in a police report, particularly if the only person involved in the crash was killed.
But the NTSB forum helped to thrust drowsy driving into the national spotlight, and more employers are recognizing their role in keeping workers safe, Pratt said.
“It’s more and more on the radar of these non-commercial fleets,” Pratt said. “Employers whose workers are sales fleets, service fleets, in industries like utilities and oil and gas, they are becoming much more aware of this issue. There are things that can be done and there are resources available.”
The National Sleep Foundation offers one such resource at drowsydriving.org. Another option for employers would be to create toolbox talks and other programs from information included in the North American Fatigue Management Program.
Smaller programs have popped up to help employers on the local level. The Stark County (OH) Sheriff’s Department created a “Workplace Driver Safety Toolkit” to help employers.
The guidebook recommends that employers encourage workers to exercise, eat well and take breaks during the workday to help maintain sufficient energy levels and prevent fatigued driving.
“We’ve had more businesses coming to us for the book, not only on drowsy driving but also on distracted driving,” said Sharon George, director of the Stark County Safe Communities Coalition. “We have some businesses that are just now realizing their role in preventing the traffic crashes.”
Photo credits: (clockwise from top left): RGtimeline/iStock/Thinkstock; SANSA Images; benkrut/iStock/Thinkstock; Igor Alecsander/iStock/Thinkstock