Danger 24/7

Over the course of your life, you've probably pulled some "all-nighters." Unfortunately not all work can be completed during "working hours," and that means that some of us, some of the time, study, work or even play for lengthy periods without sleep. In this era that demands ever-increasing productivity, it also seems as if this is happening more and more often.

To some, this is just the price we pay for more money, more elaborate lifestyles and "progress." But fatigue has another, much more ugly side -- it can be fatal. According to a company called Circadian Technologies, Inc., which specializes in helping companies deal with the new 24/7 world of commerce, several scientific studies have demonstrated that people who have been awake for 24 hours are impaired to the same level as someone with a blood-alcohol level of .10 percent, which is recognized as legally drunk in all states. The U.S. Department of Transportation has identified fatigue as the number one safety problem in transportation operations, with a cost in excess of $12 billion a year, and that fails to take into account the incalculable loss that occurs when an individual is killed in a "drowsy driving" traffic accident.

In an attempt to address the growing problem of driving while fatigued, the state of New Jersey recently enacted what has been labeled "Maggie's Law," a statute that makes drowsy driving a criminal offense. Under the new law, a sleep-deprived driver who causes an accident after being awake for more than 24 hours can be convicted of vehicular homicide. For both employees and employers alike, the law raises the specter of liability and even criminal culpability in cases in which drowsy employees who work long hours, high amounts of overtime, double-shifts, or even 24-hour on-call periods have accidents that cause bodily harm.

While to the 9-to-5 group, the problem seems an alien one, to the 24 million Americans who work in extended-hours jobs outside the hours of 7 am to 7 pm, the thrust of Maggie's Law is very real indeed. Circadian notes many extended-hours employees routinely stay awake for 24 hours on their first nightshift of the work week. Similarly, medical professionals and other emergency services personnel are often required to remain on-duty for 24-hour shifts. In emergency situations, utility linemen and technical support personnel work up to 48 hours without rest. These employees are confronted daily with the challenge of drowsy driving.

What they haven't been confronted with -- at least up to now -- is the answer to the challenge. But government and public interest groups are starting to warm to the issue.

The Minnesota Network of Employers for Traffic Safety (Minnesota NETS) recently noted, "Workplace safety efforts that ignore traffic issues are bypassing the leading cause of work-related death."

"Traffic injuries are the greatest fatality risk workers face," said Lisa Kons, coordinator of Minnesota NETS. "Employers can be a big influence on employees' driving behavior, on the job and off."

Certainly one area in which employers bear great responsibility (and potential liability) is required overtime that can result in fatigue. For example, the latest statistics from the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry show that transportation incidents, mostly on highways, caused 46 percent of worker deaths during the five-year period from 1997-2001.

To address this, Drive Safely Work Week, sponsored nationally by the Network of Employers for Traffic Safety (NETS), is designed to help businesses create positive change in driver behavior. The key safety issues targeted by the campaign include buckling safety belts, aggressive driving, distracted driving, impaired driving, and the newly identified killer: "drowsy driving."

Driving Today Managing Editor Jack R. Nerad pulls the occasional all-nighter, but he tries not to drive when fatigued.