Lack of sleep dangerous

Farm accidents rise | Researcher says proper shuteye critical to farm safety

It’s well documented that farming is one of the most dangerous professions in Canada, but how many farm accidents are caused by a lack of sleep?

No data is available to definitively answer that question, but a globally recognized sleep expert is convinced there is a link.

“Nurses say openly, ‘well, it’s fall time. Let’s get ready for the farmers.’ They know there’s going to be a lot of accidents,” said Carlyle Smith, director of the Trent University Sleep Centre in Peterborough, Ont.

“A lot of those (accidents) could be reduced if you could get these guys (farmers) to just take a nap.”

Smith was in Manitoba Jan. 14-19 for five rural workshops titled Sleepless in Manitoba: Making Sleep Work for You. Manitoba Farm & Rural Support Services organized the presentations in Brandon, Dauphin, Morden, Neepawa and Beausejour to shed light on a health and safety issue that doesn’t get sufficient attention.

“They’re haven’t been conclusive studies done, to my knowledge, about the connection (between farm accidents and sleep),” said Janet Smith, Farm & Rural Support Services program manager.

“But it makes sense if you’re not sleeping because they (scientists) equate it to being intoxicated.”

Research data indicates that 24 hours of wakefulness equates to a blood alcohol level of 0.1 percent, which is over the legal limit of 0.08 percent in many jurisdictions.

Carlyle Smith is certain that lack of sleep leads to serious on-farm accidents for two reasons: research data on the impact of sleep deprivation on the human body and his personal experience growing up on a farm near Oak Lake, Man.

“I watched my dad, and I participated in harvest, and I know there are times you really have to go (work long hours),” said Smith, who is known for his research on sleep and how it affects learning.

“(But) I watched my uncle, who was just so exhausted, have his hand ground off by a gear…. He was trying to do something with the machine running and he just made a mistake.”

Glen Blahey, agricultural health and safety specialist with the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association, said a lack of sleep leads to slower response times and poorer decisions, which can be fatal when working with heavy equipment or livestock.

Getting slightly more rest during the hectic spring and late summer periods might reduce the risk of serious accidents on the farm, but Smith said it’s not easy to convince driven, self-reliant people such as farmers to take a nap in the middle of the day during harvest.

“There comes this point of exhaustion where you simply must sleep. Your health has to be more important than that last 80 acres of wheat,” he said.

Blahey agreed, noting he often thinks of bumper stickers created by a farm safety group in Manitoba.

“One of the stickers read, ‘I’ll finish this field even if it kills me’ … and on occasion that’s exactly what happens.”

Farmers aren’t the only people in North America who underestimate the value of sleep.

Smith said it’s been well documented that people began sleeping less as the world modernized over the last century.

“I’m not sure of the exact numbers. I know that 100 years ago we got a couple of more hours of sleep … than we do now,” he said.

“Most (scientists) would agree that people are sleeping less now because they (the public) have decided to scrimp on that particular thing.”

He said people and doctors don’t appreciate the importance of sleep, even though insufficient sleep increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes and causes a myriad of other health problems.

“Medical schools don’t spend a lot of time talking about sleep,” he said. “Your average doctor doesn’t take it that seriously.”

He said research on shift workers has demonstrated that the heart and other organs cannot tolerate inconsistent sleep habits.

“Bad sleep leads to earlier death,” he said.

Most patients show up at Smith’s sleep lab reluctantly, despite the scientific evidence.

“The men are dragged into the (sleep) lab by their women,” Smith said. “He (the husband) will often say, ‘I don’t even know why I’m here.’ ”

Blahey said the “I’m fine” or “I don’t need help” attitude is pervasive among farmers.

“The martyr thing, I’ve seen (that) over the years,” he said.

“The whole issue of personal health is something that producers either do not want to face or don’t take seriously.”

Janet Smith said that attitude may be shifting because the sleep workshops in Manitoba were well attended.

“We know that we’ve tapped a nerve. I’m sure this won’t be the last you here from us on this topic ”

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