Nancy Grover reported Friday on a ground-breaking study that found – wait for it – sleep is important when it comes to safety. While many of us have suspected for years that somehow sleep was associated with rest and restoration, there has finally been a (likely taxpayer funded) study to eliminate any doubt. The research showed that sleep deprivation doubles the odds of making placekeeping errors and triples the number of lapses in attention. The researchers called this “startling.” 

Others might call it obvious. Perhaps the researchers were themselves deprived of appropriate sleep. 

Either way, this is big news for the workers’ compensation industry.

Grover reports that results indicate sleep deprivation causes more than just lapses in attention. Instead, researchers found that “it may impair a range of higher-order cognitive processes.” What this means, according to her article:

While simpler tasks may be done on auto-pilot, it is the more complex functions that can be dramatically impacted. What is specifically affected by the lack of sleep is placekeeping – the ability to perform a set of steps or subtasks in a particular order without omissions or repetitions.

In other words, they found that while a sleep deprived pilot may be able to tie his shoes, he may not remember to lower the landing gear before guiding his plane on to the runway. Similarly, the researchers indicate that a sleep deprived surgeon may actually be a problem when attempting a complex medical procedure.

It is a good thing they told us that. Those of us sleepwalking through our day may actually be presenting a risk for ourselves and others. 

Fortunately for me, my job requires very little in the way of higher-order cognitive functions. If the research is to be believed, I can go with very little sleep and be a danger to no one – as long as I don’t drive through a school yard on my way to work. For those employers who have employees who actually have to do things, this could be a game changer.

For instance, a factory worker in an auto plant who forgets to properly attach brake lines might present a bit of a problem. A forklift driver navigating a crowded warehouse might not see those two employees behind him, creating a mess on the floor and one heck of a lot of paperwork for their sleep deprived supervisors. 

According to Grover, the researchers said, “Our findings debunk a common theory that suggests that attention is the only cognitive function affected by sleep deprivation. Some sleep-deprived people might be able to hold it together under routine tasks, like a doctor taking a patient’s vitals. But our results suggest that completing an activity that requires following multiple steps, such as a doctor completing a medical procedure, is much riskier under conditions of sleep deprivation.”

Grover also writes, “The researchers say their results should serve to alert people – as well as employers – to the significance of sleep deprivation on one’s ability to undertake complicated tasks. Interventions that benefit attention may have limited effectiveness. Instead, they say different or multiple interventions may be necessary.”

So, if we interpret this properly (an interpretation that is subject to multiple cognitive functions, and as a sleep deprived blogger the study suggests I might miss a step or two), if a worker only has one or two essential functions, then lack of sleep is not much of a concern. That is good news for the guy operating the heavy metal press in a factory. Of course, my sleep deprived cognition imagines that person only slips a piece of metal into a machine and presses a button. If there is more involved in that, well, bad on me. 

Thank God we have researchers willing to shed light in these previously unrecognized issues. Personally, thinking about all this sleep deprivation is exhausting. I need a nap. After all, I wouldn’t want to be a danger to anyone.

 

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