Welcome to Focus on Fatigue.
Our team here at InterDynamics would like to wish you a happy new year. We hope you’ve had a restful holiday season and are ready to tackle new plans and goals over the next twelve months. Of course, we also hope that one of those goals includes getting plenty of sleep!
This month in Focus on Fatigue we will be looking at commuting for shift workers. At the end of a long shift, or a long block of shifts, the thought of getting home is often utmost in the minds of workers. We’ll be looking at the some of the issues workers face when it comes to commuting and what they can do to increase their chances of arriving home safe and sound.
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Commuting and the Shift Worker
Every shift worker knows what it’s like to breathe a sigh of relief at the end of a long shift. However, even then, there is one more obstacle for workers to overcome before they can start to relax: getting home. Many shift workers commute to and from work by driving themselves in a car. Faced with a variety of issues such as lack of quality sleep, commuting at night, and long distances, what can shift workers do to ensure they arrive home safely?
The many faces of the shift worker commute
Shift work comes in a wide array of types and locations, and so does the associated commute. Occupations such as nursing, policing, or security, may see shift workers travelling short distances through brightly lit city streets when they drive to and from work. Meanwhile, mine workers can often work for weeks at a time on site and then be faced with a drive several hundred kilometers long through a rural landscape after their final shift. Therefore, there is no one-size-fits-all set of guidelines for shift workers to use when dealing with commutes. It is necessary for every individual to take into account their particular work situation and their individual needs when considering commuting safety.
What we do know is that many research studies have linked driving after a night shift with a greater crash risk. One study found that participants were four times more likely to have an accident after a night shift than they were when fully rested.
Some of the issues shift workers face in their commute
- Length of time awake – Sleep/wake homeostasis is one of the main ways our body regulates our sleep. The longer we’ve been awake the greater the drive to fall asleep. For a worker who has woken up in time to get ready for a shift and then worked for twelve or more hours before even getting behind the wheel, the length of time they have been awake can be of concern.
- Time of commute – The other way our body regulates sleep is through our circadian rhythm (the internal body clock that tells us when we should be asleep). Driving during circadian lows (these usually occur around mid-afternoon and in the pre-dawn hours) will have a greater risk than driving at other times.
- Time of commute (part 2) – Light also plays a big part in how sleepy we feel, as our body responds to low light by producing melatonin which helps us to feel sleepy. So workers may feel sleepier when driving at night than they do driving during the day.
- Length of commute – The longer we drive the more likely we are to feel sleepy, this is especially true if the drive is monotonous.
- Microsleeps – These are short periods of sleep that happen to people who are sleep deprived and they can last from just a few seconds to as long as thirty seconds. Microsleeps are a major cause of behavior such as lane drifting and head nodding. One of the most dangerous things about microsleeps is that you will not always be aware you’re having them. You may not even close your eyes when you fall asleep.
- Control beliefs – A recent study of mine workers who commute exceedingly long distances to get home (the average was over 400kms) at the end of their shift block looked at what beliefs encouraged workers to drive home immediately after the end of their last shift, rather than resting before they started their commute. Some of the beliefs were that they were ‘an experienced long distance driver’ and they owned ‘a car built for country roads.’ These sorts of beliefs can result in optimism bias, the mistaken assumption that factors like ‘being an experienced driver’ will reduce your chances of having a fatigue-related accident.
What can shift workers do in order to ensure their own safety, and the safety of others, while commuting?
- Take a nap – This is, of course, the most obvious way to increase safety for the drive home. However, if you are going to take a nap it should be for either less than twenty minutes, or longer than ninety minutes, so that driving performance upon waking isn’t negatively affected by sleep inertia (that groggy feeling you get when you first wake up).
- Drink a cup of coffee – A jolt of caffeine has been shown to improve driver alertness for an hour or so. While it’s not as effective as a nap, it may help.
- Have a routine that supports safety – One group of researchers found that routine was a major predictor of whether shift workers would rest before their commute or start their commute immediately after finishing work. If you make resting before a long commute part of your ‘end of shift’ routine, you are more likely to do it.
- Be aware of motivations – Other beliefs which encouraged workers to leave without a rest included being sick of being on site, the desire to get back to ‘civilization’, and to get the drive over with. Simply being aware of such motivators may help to reduce their impact and provide the psychological distance necessary to make commuting decisions based on factors such as time awake and sleepiness.
- Get some light therapy – A recent study has found that exposure to bright light (in this case for 45 minutes) before driving resulted in fewer accidents and better driving performance. While the bright light didn’t stop people from feeling sleepy, it did suppress melatonin, which may have helped improve performance. So, if you are able to spend time in a brightly lit area in the final hour of your shift, it may be a good idea to do so.
- Call a cab – If you live close enough to work, you may be able to consider letting someone else do the driving.
- Potter, C., Davey, J. and Armstrong, K. (2015) The long drive home: Control beliefs and commuting intentions of mine workers. Proceedings of the 2015 Australiasian Road Safety Conference. 14-16 October, Gold Coast, Australia.
- Di Milia, L., Rogers, N. L. and Akerstedt, T. (2012) Sleepiness, long distance commuting and night work as predictors of driving performance. PLOS One, 7(9), e45856.
- Akerstedt, T., Peters, B., Anund, A. and Kecklund, G. (2005) Impaired alertness and performance driving home from the night shift: A driving simulator study. Journal of Sleep Research, 14, 17-20.
- Baker, J. (2015) The impact of commuting, fatigue and workload on the safety of WA police officers. WA Police Union.
- Rogers, A., Holmes, S. and Spencer, M. (2001) The effect of shiftwork on driving to and from work. Journal of Human Ergology (Tokyo), 30(1-2), 131-136.
In the News
Several startups now want to do the same thing for drowsy driving that breathalyzers did for drunken driving, The Wall Street Journal reports. These companies have developed face-tracking technology that can detect when drivers become dangerously sleepy and have licensed their software to major car makers.
This driving experiment shows the terrifying impact a lack of sleep can have on motorists’ safety on the road.