Sleep Deprivation: What Does It Mean for Public Safety Officers?
When I speak to police officers about my research on sleep, job performance and shift work, they always ask, "What's the best
I always answer, "That's the wrong question. Most shift arrangements have good and bad aspects." The right question is this:
"What is the best way to manage shift work, keep our officers healthy and maintain high performance in our organization?"
Scheduling and staffing around the clock requires finding a way to balance each organization's unique needs with those of
its officers. Questions like "How many hours in a row should officers work?" and "How many officers are needed on which shift?"
need to be balanced against "How much time off do officers need to rest and recuperate properly?" and "What's the best way
to schedule those hours to keep employees safe and performing well?"
After all, shift work interferes with normal sleep and forces people to work at unnatural times of the day when their bodies
are programmed to sleep. Sleep-loss-related fatigue degrades performance, productivity and safety as well as health and well-being.
Fatigue costs the U.S. economy $136 billion per year in health-related lost productivity alone.
In the last decade, many managers in policing and corrections have begun to acknowledge — like their counterparts in other
industries — that rotating shift work is inherently dangerous, especially when one works the graveyard shift. Managers in
aviation, railroading and trucking, for example, have had mandated hours-of-work laws for decades. And more recently they
have begun to use complex mathematical models to manage fatigue-related risks.
All of us experience the everyday stress associated with family life, health and finances. Most of us also feel work-related
stress associated with bad supervisors, long commutes, inadequate equipment and difficult assignments. But police and corrections
officers also must deal with the stresses of working shifts, witnessing or experiencing trauma, and managing dangerous confrontations.
My colleague, John Violanti, Ph.D., a 23-year veteran of the New York State Police, is currently a professor in the Department
of Social and Preventive Medicine at the University at Buffalo and an instructor with the Law Enforcement Wellness Association.
His research shows that law enforcement officers are dying earlier than they should. The average age of death for police officers
in his 40-year study was 66 years of age — a full 10 years sooner than the norm.
He and other researchers also found that police officers were much more likely than the general public to have higher-than-recommended
cholesterol levels, higher-than-average pulse rates and diastolic blood pressure, and much higher prevalence of sleep disorders.
So what can we do to make police work healthier? Many things. One of the most effective strategies is to get enough sleep.
It sounds simple, but it is not. More than half of police officers fail to get adequate rest, and they have 44 percent higher
levels of obstructive sleep apnea than the general public.
More than 90 percent report being routinely fatigued, and 85 percent report driving while drowsy.
Sleep deprivation is dangerous. Researchers have shown that being awake for 19 hours produces impairments that are comparable
to having a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .05 percent. Being awake for 24 hours is comparable to having a BAC of roughly
.10 percent. This means that in just five hours — the difference between going without sleep for 19 hours versus 24 hours — the impact
essentially doubles. (It should be noted that, in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, it is a crime to drive with
a BAC of .08 percent or above.)
If you work a 10-hour shift, then attend court, then pick up your kids from school, drive home (hoping you do not fall asleep
at the wheel), catch a couple hours of sleep, then get up and go back to work — and you do this for a week — you may be driving
your patrol car while just as impaired as the last person you arrested for DUI.
Bars and taverns are legally liable for serving too many drinks to people who then drive, have an accident and kill someone.
There is recent precedent for trucking companies and other employers being held responsible for drivers who cause accidents
after working longer than permitted. It seems very likely that police departments eventually will be held responsible if an
officer causes a death because he was too tired to drive home safely.
Sleep and fatigue are basic survival issues, just like patrol tactics, firearms safety and pursuit driving. To reduce risks,
stay alive and keep healthy, officers and their managers have to work together to manage fatigue. Too-tired cops put themselves,
their fellow officers and the communities they serve at risk.
Accidental Deaths and Fatigue
The number of police officer deaths from both felonious assaults and accidents has decreased in recent years. Contrary to
what most people might think, however, more officers die as a result of accidents than criminal assaults. Ninety-one percent
of accidental deaths are caused by car crashes, being hit by vehicles while on foot, aircraft accidents, falls or jumping.
We know that the rate of these accidents increases with lack of sleep and time of day. Researchers have shown that the risk
increases considerably after a person has been on duty nine hours or more. After 10 hours on duty, the risk increases by approximately
90 percent; after 12 hours, 110 percent. The night shift has the greatest risk for accidents; they are almost three times more likely to happen during the night shift
than the morning shift.
Researchers who study officer stress, sleep and performance have a number of techniques to counteract sleep deprivation and
stress. They fall into two types:
- Things managers can do.
- Things officers can do.
The practices listed below have been well-received by departments that recognize that a tired cop is a danger both to himself
and to the public.
Things Managers Can Do
Things Officers Can Do
- Stay physically fit: Get enough exercise, maintain a healthy body weight, eat several fruits and vegetables a day, and stop
- Learn to use caffeine effectively by restricting routine intake to the equivalent of one or two eight-ounce cups of coffee
a day. When you need to combat drowsiness, drink only one cup every hour or two; stop doses well before bedtime.
- Exercise proper sleep hygiene. In other words, do everything possible to get seven or more hours of sleep every day. For example,
go to sleep at the same time every day as much as possible; avoid alcohol just before bedtime; use room darkening curtains;
make your bedroom a place for sleep, not for doing work or watching TV. Do not just doze off in an easy chair or on the sofa
with the television on.
- If you have not been able to get enough sleep, try to take a nap before your shift. Done properly, a 20-minute catnap is proven
to improve performance, elevate mood and increase creativity.
- If you are frequently fatigued, drowsy, snore or have a large build, ask your doctor to check you for sleep apnea. Because
many physicians have little training in sleep issues, it is a good idea to see someone who specializes in sleep medicine.
About the Author
Bryan Vila is a professor of criminal justice at Washington State University Spokane and director of the Critical Job Tasks Simulation
Laboratory in the Sleep and Performance Research Center. Vila served as a law enforcement officer for 17 years. He has authored
numerous research articles and four books, including Tired Cops: The Importance of Managing Police Fatigue. Back to the top.
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Date Created: March 27, 2009