A chronic sleep disorder might be to blame for a significant number of workplace injuries.
Estimates suggest up to a quarter of adults between ages 30 and 70 are affected by sleep apnea, which causes intermittent pauses in breathing that disrupt sleep and decrease sleep quality.
People with untreated sleep apnea were twice as likely to get hurt at work compared to those without the condition, according to a recent study conducted in Canada. What's more, sleep apnea sufferers were three times more likely to suffer injuries that were potentially fatigue-related.
"People with sleep apnea have decreased cognitive function, vigilance, attention, and motor function," said study author Dr. Najib T. Ayas, an associate professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia. "And we know from previous studies that individuals with untreated sleep apnea are at increased risk of motor vehicle crashes.”
The study looked at a group of 1,236 patients referred to the University of British Columbia Hospital Sleep Disorder Laboratory to be evaluated for sleep apnea. The researchers compared the injury claims of 994 patients who were ultimately diagnosed with sleep apnea to the claims of 242 patients who did not have the condition. Claims were only included for injuries that resulted in at least one day of absence from work.
Nearly 10 percent of people with sleep apnea had filed a claim reporting an injury, while only 5.4 percent of those without sleep apnea did the same.
And when looking at what's called "vigilance-related injuries" -- meaning those associated with distractions, such as falls and motor vehicle crashes related to drowsy driving -- 4.5 percent of those with sleep apnea filed a claim reporting an injury compared with 1.7 percent of those without sleep apnea.
Why This Data Is More Reliable Than Past Reports
Though other studies have shown there is a connection between sleep apnea and increased rates of work-related injuries, this study is one of the largest to document the relationship, Ayas said.
Plus, the researchers used reported injuries and objective measures to analyze rates of untreated sleep apnea (cases were diagnosed using polysomnography, the lab test that measures patients’ overnight sleep data), versus relying on suspected cases of sleep apnea or self-reports of injuries, making these findings more reliable.
Ayas said the researchers are continuing with a follow-up study to see if treatment mitigates the higher injury rate or if rates of work injuries continue to be higher in people who are treating sleep apnea compared with people without it.
These findings may also have implications for screening for sleep apnea in the workplace, though no specific policy recommendations are made in the paper. For now, Ayas suggests snorers and others with sleep apnea symptoms ask their doctors about whether they may have the condition.
"People who have symptoms of sleep apnea -- i.e. being tired during the day and loud snoring at night -- should get checked out for it, and understand they probably are at increased risk for having occupational injuries as well,” Ayas said.
Sarah DiGiulio is The Huffington Post's sleep reporter. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.