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Safety Smart - Fighting Fatigue in the Workplace


At 4:00 a.m. on a frigid February morning, county employee Jim rolled out of bed got into his snowplow, and down the county roads in Eastern Montana.  As is often the case with snowplow drivers, winter days begin early and end late.

Driving winds buffeted his vehicle and heavy, wet snow pelted his windshield, sticking to the highway and making the driving surface treacherous and unpredictable.

The weather had been like this for days and the forecast was for continued, heavy accumulations of snow, coupled with black ice and high winds.  Jim knows that many lives depend on how effectively he performs his job this day.

A veteran of 15 years with the County Road Department, Jim takes his job seriously.  Having worked until late the previous evening, he is fatigued and is having a hard time staying awake.

At about 6:00 p.m. Jim’s eyes droop, his head slumps down on his chest, and he loses control of his vehicle.

According to a witness, Jim’s vehicle ran off the road, flipped several times and struck a telephone pole.  Jim, 40 years old at the time of the accident, sustained serious injuries.  “He was in a coma for almost a week and suffers from permanent brain damage and is unable to work,” says an attorney who now represents him.

Although this case is fictions, could it happen to you?  Yes, it could happen to you!  Have you had the experience of driving while you are asleep and suddenly realizing that you are 45 miles closer to your destination than when you last checked the signs and you do not remember where you have been the past 45 miles!

According to Dr William Dement, The nation’s leading sleep researcher, a Professor at Stanford University, and chair of the Nations commission on Sleep Disorders research, it is possible for humans to stay up for extended periods of time as long as they are involve in something challenging and engaging.  However, once a person shifts to a routine or boring task, sleep can come on with the force and suddenness of seizure.

Driving, for example, can produce that hypnotic effect.  Dement explains that when you push a person beyond a certain point without sleep, that person’s ability to self-assess is severely impaired.  In other words, they are simply too tired to realize that they are unable to drive safely.

Are you at high risk of falling asleep at the wheel?

Certain groups of people are at a high risk of suffering from driver fatigue than others.  Some of the candidates may surprise you.  Do you fit into one or more of these groups?

  • Professional and over- the road- drivers;
  • Night-shift workers;
  • Law enforcement workers;
  • People who work shifts in excess of 12 hours;
  • Senior Citizens;
  • Smokers;
  • People who have limited exercise;
  • People with poor posture; and
  • People with sleeping disorders.

Warning signs of Drowsiness & Fatigue

If you . . .

  • can’t remember the last few miles driven;
  • have wandering or disconnected thoughts;
  • experience difficulty focusing or keeping your eyes open;
  • have trouble keeping your head up;
  • drift from lanes or hit a rumble strip;
  • yawn repeatedly;
  • tailgate or miss traffic signs; and
  • find yourself jerking your vehicle back into lane;

Then you may be suffering from drowsiness or fatigue. Continuing to drive in this condition puts you at serious risk of being involved in a fatigue-related crash. You should pull over in a safe place and get some rest before resuming your trip.

Safety TipsWhat you can do to stay alert while driving

  • Sleep/take naps: Your best bet is to get enough sleep every day. If you must stay up late, afternoon naps are a great way to get more sleep. If you feel drowsy while driving, a 15-minute nap can be very effective. Make sure to pull over in a safe place.
  • Caffeine: Avoid caffeine during the last half of your workday as it may contribute to sleeping problems. You can gain short-term alertness by drinking coffee or other caffeine sources if driving, but it usually takes 30 minutes to take affect and wears off after a few hours.
  • Regular stops: You should stop every 100 miles or 2 hours. Switch drivers if you can.
  • Avoid Alcohol: If you have been drinking, please don't drive!  In addition to being illegal, alcohol makes you sleepy and  amplifies your fatigue.

If you are planning a long trip, AAA offers the following tips for avoiding fatigue:

  • Prepare for your trip by getting a good night's sleep the night before. Plan to drive during the time that you are normally awake, and stay overnight rather than traveling straight through.
  • Avoid driving during the body's "down time". According to AAA, this is generally in the mid-afternoon and between midnight and 6:00 a.m.
  • If you have passengers, talk to them. It will help to keep you alert, and they will also be able to tell if you are showing signs of getting sleepy.
  • Schedule a break every 2 hours or every 100 miles. Take a nap, stretch, take a walk and get some exercise before resuming your trip.
  • Stop sooner if you show any danger signs of sleepiness

"Tricks" That DO NOT Work

Opening the window, turning on the air conditioning, or playing loud music are not effective in keeping drivers alert for any extended period of time.