Asleep at the wheel: lessons from the Bronx commuter train derailment

Dec 10, 2013

Asleep at the wheelBy Ivan Szlapetis, Workplace Safety & Prevention Services

Recent revelations from the fatal derailment in the Bronx, NY points to sleepiness as a possible cause. The union representing the train engineer told media two days later that he dozed off for just a moment prior to the crash. While the investigation may uncover other contributing factors, this may be a good opportunity for us to reflect on our own safety.

When was the last time you dozed off for just a second while driving? Do you fall asleep easily during movies, or while reading to your kids? Do you have trouble falling and staying asleep? Or are you unconscious the moment your head hits the pillow? If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, it may pay to take a closer look at your "sleep hygiene."

Certainly the demands of our work schedules and personal obligations will affect our sleep quantity and quality. However, there are things individuals can do that can promote better sleep, and therefore promote safety. Sleep hygiene is the control of behaviours, diet and environment that can affect our sleep. To sleep better, we can make smarter choices about the food and beverages we consume, our nighttime routines, the timing of exercise activities, and the environment in our bedrooms. Below are links to further information on good sleep habits and sleep disorders.

Employers can also play a role in minimizing the impact of fatigue on health and safety. This can include wellness initiatives that can promote better sleep, stress reduction and improved energy. In industries where safety is highly reliant on an alert operator, consider fatigue risk management programs. A Transport Canada link below offers information to the aviation industry that could also apply to the transportation and manufacturing sectors.

While it may be months before investigators issue their final report on the Bronx derailment, now is a good time for all of us to reflect on whether we are as safe as we can be, whether on the job or off.

Sleep-related resources

Ivan Szlapetis is a Key Account Manager and Canadian Certified Professional Ergonomist with experience researching the impact of shiftwork and overtime on workers.