Is being drowsy at work as dangerous as being drunk?

Is it more dangerous to be at work when drowsy or after a few drinks? Credit Nelson Gono

With shift work and non-regular work hours becoming more common, many people are arriving to work feeling tired. Which begs the question, is it more dangerous to be at work when drowsy or after a few drinks?

A news article on KXAN, a US in-depth news organisation, sheds light on the question in its investigation into comparing drowsy driving with drunk driving.

As they say in their introduction, driving while drowsy is dangerous. In the US, it’s responsible for thousands of car accidents and injuries each year, and hundreds of deaths. Although, it’s worth pointing out that thousands more deaths each year are attributed to alcohol-related car accidents.

The article, which uses research from a sleep specialist organisation, says that while driving drowsy and driving drunk is not the same, they do share some similar side effects. These include:

  • A decrease in reaction time
  • Trouble focusing
  • Drifting between lanes and the side of the road
  • Forgetting the last few kilometres
  • Tailgating
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Aggressiveness

The result is that being awake for 18 hours is comparable to someone who has a blood alcohol content of 0.05%. Being awake for 20 hours increases this to 0.08%. After 24 hours, it’s around 0.1% or double the legal limit for most drivers in Australia.

Is being tired at work equivalent to being drunk?

The article highlighted above focusses on driving and drowsiness, but does it translate to the workplace?

While it’s a few years old now, an Australian Federal Government inquiry, called Bedtime Reading, took an in-depth look at sleep health in general. A significant part of the inquiry focussed on sleep health and the workplace.

The inquiry found that sleep issues costs Australia billions of dollars each year ($24 billion in 2016/17 alone). It also came to the conclusion that tired workers are as impaired as drunk workers.

It highlighted the example of truck drivers, some of whom were found to be working for 17 hours straight. The 17 hours without a break was thought to be equivalent to being at 0.05 blood alcohol level.

While accidents and injuries are the main concern of being drowsy at work, absenteeism, productivity and equipment damage are also affected.

The Bedtime Reading inquiry included a 2019 report by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau which looked at fatigue in the aviation industry. The report found that while most pilots surveyed stated they were sufficiently well rested, a small but significant number reported not getting enough sleep.

While over 90 per cent of pilots recognised that their employer had a formal process for pilots to remove themselves from duty when fatigued, most didn’t do so due to concern of how it would be viewed.

Take breaks; take a power nap

If you are tired while driving a car or at work, the best advice is to take frequent breaks. If possible, a short power nap is the best thing you can do.


Is it more dangerous to be at work when drowsy or after a few drinks? Credit Nelson Gono

By Michael

Michael is the founder of Integrity Sampling and is responsible for overseeing all national operations. He is based at Integrity Sampling's head office in Melbourne and is also responsible for the co-ordination of drug and alcohol testing within Victoria, assisting in the implementation of drug and alcohol (fit for work) policies and the presentation of drug and alcohol education and awareness programs. You can connect with Michael Wheeldon on LinkedIn

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