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Disorder of Magnitude

Wednesday, August 1, 2012
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In the world of journalism, a writer sometimes needs to just go where the story takes him or her.

A couple of months ago, we asked one of our regular contributors, Carol Patton, to pursue a piece on worker fatigue and its impact on worker safety and productivity.

The story idea was originally triggered by a New York Times front-page article titled "Deadliest Danger Isn't at the Rig but on the Road," written by Ian Urbina. In his lead, Urbina reported on the tragic death of Timothy Roth, a rig driver who died 10 minutes from his home when he fell asleep at the wheel of his truck.

Urbina noted in his story that more than 300 oil-and-gas workers like Roth were killed in highway crashes over the past decade, adding that many of the deaths were "due in part to oil-field exemptions from highway safety rules that allow truckers to work longer hours than drivers in most other industries."

True, we've explored the issue of worker fatigue before in Human Resource Executive®. But considering the huge impact fatigue can have on worker safety and productivity, we figured it might be a good time to ask Patton to revisit the issue and see what employers were doing about it.

Eventually, Patton's phone calls led her to some disturbing and yet-to-be-reported findings in the related area of sleep apnea, a fairly common cause of worker fatigue.

In research conducted a decade ago, Allan Pack, professor of medicine and director of the Center for Sleep and Respiratory Neurobiology at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center in Philadelphia, found that up to 28 percent of commercial drivers had some type of sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea. (Pack believes that figure is still accurate today.)

Since then, a number other sleep-apnea studies have reached similar conclusions, including some mentioned in this edition's story.

As Patton's piece in HRE's first-ever digital-only edition points out, the issue of sleep apnea is especially relevant in industries such as transportation and security, where the consequences of not addressing the issue can be disastrous. But it also makes clear that its reach goes a lot further.

According to one estimate, roughly 31 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea, including store cashiers, accountants who control their employers' billion-dollar budgets and technicians who monitor global networks.

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Considering it crosses a wide spectrum of occupations, its implications can be huge -- both in terms of worker safety and worker productivity. Very huge!

It isn't a surprise to learn, then, that many experts are puzzled as to why more employers haven't recognized the problem and adopted more proactive approaches. Or why it isn't on the radar of more HR executives.

"I am frankly perplexed that this hasn't gained more momentum than it has because the benefits are so clear," says Don Osterberg, senior vice president for safety, security and driver training at Schneider National Inc., a firm that is now investing heavily in addressing this issue. 

Perhaps it's simply wishful thinking, but I'd like to hope Patton's story might help, even in a small way, to accelerate efforts on this front.

No question, there's a definite cost associated with addressing this issue. But I think Patton's story also makes a very strong case that the price of "keeping your head in the sand" can be even greater.

e-mail: dshadovitz@lrp.com

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