Sleep apnea is a common condition that can cause a person's breathing to become very shallow or stop altogether while they are sleeping. It is thought that this sleep disorder may affect up to a quarter of adults between the ages of 30 and 75. Although normal breathing will eventually restart on its own, the abrupt pauses may occur more than 30 times an hour, and last from several seconds to minutes each time. Ultimately, sleep apnea greatly affects the quality of a person’s sleep and is the leading cause of excessive daytime sleepiness.

Seven Fascinating Facts About Sleep Apnea and Workplace Safety

Sleep Apnea Often Goes Undiagnosed

Since breathing problems only occur while a person is sleeping, often times he or she is not even aware of an issue. An individual may feel exhausted without knowing the true cause, unless a partner notices the signs or a physician knows to look for it. Unfortunately, a blood test will not detect the presence of sleep apnea, nor do most doctors recognize the signs during a routine physical. It is estimated that as many as 80% of those with sleep issues are undiagnosed. Sleep apnea is diagnosed via a sleep study that measures many things, including wake time after sleep onset.

Males Are at Increased Risk of Developing Sleep Apnea

Middle-aged men are about twice as likely to have sleep apnea as middle-aged women. Other risk factors include weight (the disorder is often associated with obesity), Type II Diabetes, and high blood pressure. Sleep apnea can also run in families and increases with smoking and alcohol use.

Certain Occupations May Also Lead to Higher Risk

Because this disorder interrupts an individual’s sleep patterns, those who work in positions that interfere with normal sleep patterns seem to be at higher risk. It is estimated that employees who work in shifts (such as overnight) are twice as likely to develop the condition than those who work a standard 9-5. The type of work a person does may also matter – some research has found an association between drivers who operate commercial motor vehicles and obstructive sleep apnea.

Employees with Sleep Apnea Have Higher Rates of Workplace Injury

According to a recent study of over 1,200 patients, those with undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnea are twice as likely to suffer from an occupational injury than those without the condition. Of those study participants who were ultimately diagnosed with the disorder, almost 10% had filed a workplace injury claim that kept them out of work for one day or more over the past 5 years. On the other hand, only 5.4% of those without sleep apnea had a similar claim in the same time period. Furthermore, sleep apnea is associated with other chronic conditions which can impact the health and productivity of your employees as well as your bottom line. Diseases such as high blood pressure, ischemic heart disease, stroke, and mood disorders can all be caused by chronic sleep issues.

Sleep Apnea Can Lead to More Workplace Falls and Crashes

Sleep apnea is the leading cause of excessive daytime sleepiness. As such, workers become less vigilant when completing otherwise routine tasks. The same researchers found that individuals with the disorder were three times more likely to suffer injuries related to reduced vigilance and distraction caused by fatigue, such as falls and motor vehicle crashes. As a result, anyone suffering from excessive daytime sleepiness should not operate a motor vehicle or heavy machinery.

Sleep Apnea Can Be Costly

This is particularly true when the condition goes untreated. In the US alone, it is estimated that $80 billion per year is spent on excess medical costs related to untreated obstructive sleep apnea. Unfortunately, the costs are much higher when disability and lost productivity are taken into account. Estimates range from an additional 2.5 to 5 times that amount in yearly costs.

Sleep Apnea Can Be Treated

Fortunately, in mild cases the disorder can often be managed by certain lifestyle changes. For example, since obesity is a major risk factor, symptoms may improve with weight loss in some cases. Limiting alcohol use and quitting smoking may also bring some relief while sleeping. Although more severe cases will require treatment by a doctor (Learn more in 5 Treatments for Employees Suffering From Sleep Apnea), employers can still help their employees begin to manage the condition by including sleep disorder management in their comprehensive wellness programs. By increasing awareness and education, as well as encouraging opportunities for screening, diagnosis and treatment, employers can help reduce the impacts of sleep apnea in their workplace.

Conclusion

Untreated sleep apnea can be especially dangerous in the workplace for those who are operating machinery or motor vehicles. But anyone who suffers from a chronic sleep condition impacts the safety of the workplace, whether from distraction, reduced productivity, increased worker’s compensation claims, or increased health issues. Incorporating education, awareness and management programs into your employee wellness initiative can go a long way to mitigate these factors. For those who already struggle with chronic sleep problems, encourage proper testing, diagnosis, and treatment by a physician.