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Shining a Light on Sleep

This article accompanies Waking Up the Workforce.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013
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When it comes to getting adequate sleep, shift workers are at a disadvantage due to the inevitable shift in their Circadian rhythms. Fortunately, smart scheduling may be all that is necessary to make a significant impact on their ability to sleep. Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, in Lebanon, N.H., simply changed the hours of its night-shift emergency room employees so they would get off work at three or four in the morning when it's still dark outside, rather than seven when it's already daylight.

"Light is toxic to sleep," says Robert McLellan, section chief for occupational and environmental medicine, and medical director at the center's Live Well/Work Well program. "If one can avoid bright light right before you go to sleep, you are much more likely to get a good night's sleep."

Conversely, getting the right kind of light at the right time of day can be highly beneficial because it helps regulate the production of melatonin, the body's sleep-regulating hormone. Terry Cook, CEO of The Litebook Co. in Alberta, Canada, says just 15 to 20 minutes of light therapy effectively shuts down melatonin production, allowing employees to be alert and awake on the job. Likewise, avoiding light -- including that from electronic devices such as computers, smartphones and televisions -- one full hour before going to bed and during the night encourages sleep.

While light therapy has long been recognized as an effective treatment for seasonal affective disorder, it's still in its infancy in terms of sleep regulation. A large consumer-electronics manufacturer is currently piloting Litebook's light-therapy devices in its Korean facilities. If the pilot is successful, the company plans to try out the lights in its North American operations.

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Unfortunately, some workers who could benefit the most from light therapy -- such as night-shift workers in the maritime industry -- cannot use such devices because they would interfere with their ability to do the job safely.

"I definitely see the advantage [of light devices], but it's a real challenge in our industry," says Jo Ann Salyers, owner of London, Ohio-based Salyers Solutions and a certified expert in the crew endurance management system, the U.S. Coast Guard's counter-fatigue program for night-shift crews working on commercial vessels. "They could try to use them during the first part of their shift to suppress melatonin production, but any kind of light in the wheel house is a disruption and poses a safety hazard."

 

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