View Comments
Shift workers twice as accident prone
Astrid Volzke/WA News Peter Eastwood

More and more people not cut out for shift work are being lured to mining sites by the almighty dollar and paying the heavy price of sleep deprivation, according to the head of a sleep institute.

David Hillman, director of the WA Sleep Disorders Research Institute at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, said many people thought they could get by with less sleep but ended up with a huge sleep debt, which could be dangerous.

RELATED NEWS: Disturbing end to bedtime story | Don't self-diagnose | Wide awake to the science of sleeping | Snoring, apnoea? Try the dentist

"The issue with sleep loss, either because of sleep habits or a sleep disorder, is inattention- related accidents," Professor Hillman said.

"Quite modest sleep loss will cause a greater number of lapses in psycho-motor vigilance tasks, with more inattention, slower reaction times and poorer information processing."

A modest sleep loss could be as little as two hours less than the optimal amount needed by the individual.

"The issue is not just the length of the shift but what happens off shift," Professor Hillman said.

"The problem is if you are working nights, for instance, and you try to sleep during the day but there is too much light and too much noise and you are not particularly good at shifting your sleep phase anyway, it is like being in jet lag.

"So with shift workers, the sleep debt accumulates."

Professor Hillman said 16 per cent of the workforce now worked shifts and their accident rate was double that of non-shift workers.

The statistics have prompted mining companies to ask advice from sleep phase experts to design shifts to help cope with the problems of fly-in- fly-out and shift workers who might have broken sleep or trouble getting to sleep at odd hours.

"What they are doing is praiseworthy," Professor Hillman said.

"They have designed their shifts to provide opportunities for sleep. How efficiently workers utilise these opportunities remains an open question."

A compounding problem was that driving the big trucks 12 hours a day was a sedentary occupation and some workers were carrying extra weight, which was a contributing factor to sleep apnoea, Professor Hillman said.

"When people are operating in a high-pressure environment like the modern mines and operating dangerous and expensive machinery, then there is a major economic benefit to making sure you don't have those problems on your site," he said.

On the part of the mining company, there was a duty of care to provide proper facilities for sleep.

"On the other side of the ledger lies obligation on the worker to be fit for duty," Professor Hillman said. "That is, to take advantage of those opportunities for sleep and to sleep during them."

Peter Eastwood, director of the new Centre for Sleep Science at the University of Western Australia, hoped the centre would play an important part in designing strategies to improve the sleep hygiene of mining workers.

The mining companies had done a wonderful job over the years of optimising shift scheduling for safety and productivity reasons and had taken the issue very seriously, he said.

But now that the shifts and schedules were optimised, the remaining problem that companies needed to address was to ensure workers slept properly when they were not working.

"It is a potentially huge problem," he said.

"You can't force people to do things but an awareness of good sleep and an understanding of the options to help employers and staff get good sleep is very important.

"You cannot have these people coming to work and driving trucks tired because they have an undiagnosed disorder like sleep apnoea or because they have unrecognised poor sleep hygiene.

"Both of these are treatable."

Professor Eastwood said it was very convenient to have a centre with sleep expertise a few hours' flight directly south from the WA mining industry rather than in another State in a different time zone.

The aim is for the centre, which has state-of-the-art sleep recording and analysis equipment, to become a focal point for innovative sleep research, teaching and education in WA. The centre opened in June.

"This facility provides an opportunity to broaden the scope of sleep research from a respiratory focus, which has been a longstanding strength of Australian sleep research, to areas which are possibly just as important but mostly under-researched," Professor Eastwood said.

"Better diagnostics and the ability to better tailor the treatment to the individual is the direction we are heading in research."

Research is planned for areas including schizophrenia and sleep disorders; the effect of cold-water immersion post-exercise on sleep; and stroke, dysphagia and sleep apnoea.

The centre also hopes to collaborate with the researchers from the famous Raine Study, which is based at the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research.

They want to define the prevalence and natural history of sleep disorders in young adults over the next three years.