Long workweeks and extended shifts have contributed to a high number of firefighters suffering from acute and chronic sleep deprivation, as well as disrupted circadian rhythms, or sleep-wake cycles. Previous studies have shown a link between long shifts and risk of burnout, sleepiness, errors, and injuries, especially when compared to shorter shifts in first responders, ER physicians, and EMTs. Furthermore, sleep disorders in firefighters often go undiagnosed, increasing their risk of injury and deteriorating health.
Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital theorized that a workplace-based Sleep Health Program (SHP) would benefit firefighters by increasing their knowledge about health and safety compared to standard practices. The SHP was created to incorporate education and a sleep disorder screening. In the mid-sized fire departments that were tested, half of the employees participated in the SHP, while the other half continued as they had been. Injuries, disability days, and other measures were watched and recorded over the next 12 months. This study is the first randomized trial to demonstrate the reduction in injury and disability risk with an SHP in place.
The research found an almost 50% reduction in disability days among those who had the SHP. Additionally, the firefighters who attended the sleep health education sessions were less likely to be injured over the 12-month period. These findings are published in the online journal, SLEEP.
Dr. Steven W. Lockley, senior author of the study and neuroscientist at the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, notes that this indicates a wellness and sleep health education program held in workplace setting for firefighters, along with free screenings and information about sleep disorders, resulted in fewer injuries and disability days. Sleep disorders are prevalent in firefighters and are comparable to those found in a large nationwide cohort study. When this is coupled with 24-hour shifts and chronic sleep loss, risks for on-the-job sleepiness and injury become a real problem. This SHP program showed that to reduce injury and disability, implementation of a thorough and well-maintained educational program would be beneficial in all fire departments.
The scientists emphasize that there is a definite and well-defined connection between higher risk of health problems like heart disease and metabolic syndromes and untreated sleep conditions. It is also well established that sleep deprivation leads to higher rates of automobile accidents, so a Sleep Health Program could help identify and treat these disorders and reduce that risk, which would benefit firefighters’ long-term health and short-term safety. Many occupational health programs that offer sleep health education and sleep disorder diagnosis and treatment can be promoted as well.
Rachael Herman is a professional writer with an extensive background in medical writing, research, and language development. Her hobbies include hiking in the Rockies, cooking, and reading.