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What are circadian rhythms and how do they affect your safety?

Are you employed in the firefighting, health care, law enforcement or emergency services industries? Then you are likely one of the millions of workers in California and other states whose lives are at risk because of fatigue. When you start your shift feeling tired and struggle to function at your best, you might not even realize that you do not only put yourself at risk but also those around you.

Although many workers in other jobs become fatigued, some occupations pose higher risks. There is a definite link between fatigue and workplace accidents due to limited performance capacity. The incidents include work-related automobile accidents.

What is fatigue?

Like many others, you might think that fatigue is just another word for sleepiness. Along with tiredness and reduced energy that requires additional effort to maintain the desired performance level, sleepiness is but one of the symptoms of fatigue. While the desire to sleep makes you sleepy, fatigue also includes social, mental and physical impairment.

Who are at risk?

Safety authorities say almost 40 percent of the U.S. workforce does not get enough sleep, which makes them candidates for fatigue and fatigue-related accidents. The following people might be at risk:

  • Anyone who does not get seven hours or more sleep per night
  • Those who work night shifts or rotating shifts
  • Workers who start working very early and remain on duty for long hours
  • Workers who perform repetitive, tedious tasks for extended periods
  • People who are on medications that affect their sleeping patterns
  • Caregivers and parents of young children
  • People who suffer from obstructive sleep apnea or other sleep disorders

Even 9-to-5 workers who do not have a regular sleep pattern that gives them at least seven hours of sleep per night could suffer from fatigue caused by sleep deprivation.

What are circadian rhythms?

Disruption of your circadian rhythms is what makes you vulnerable if you are a shift worker. Your body follows a 24-hour sleep-wake cycle that naturally makes you want to slow down at night and during a particular time of the afternoon. These circadian rhythms cause behavioral, mental and physical changes during every 24-hour cycle. Disruption by depriving the body of sleep causes impaired concentration and memory.

How can sleep deprivation affect your health?

Along with the risk of work-related accidents comes the impact of sleep deprivation on your health. Authorities say disturbed circadian rhythms can cause diabetes, cardiovascular disease and depression. According to one study, the effect of sleeping two hours less than the recommended seven or eight hours per night is very similar to the impact that drinking three beers would have on you.

The costs of fatigue-related workplace accidents

If you have to cope with the consequences of a fatigue-related on-the-job injury, the mounting medical bills and lost work time might be overwhelming. However, help is available through the California workers' compensation system. An attorney who has experience in dealing with the state-regulated insurance program can guide and support you throughout the claims process in pursuit of compensation for medical expenses and lost wages.

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