A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association from researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital presents a new public hazard: sleep-deprived cops.
Researchers studied the sleep habits of nearly 5,000 municipal and state police officers in the U.S. and Canada and correlated their on-duty performance over two years. They found that 50 percent of police have sleep disorders, such as insomnia or sleep apnea. But researchers went a step further by concluding that the implications of sleep disorders for law-enforcement professionals are especially serious: not only does sleep deprivation affect police officers’ health and job performance, it also has an impact on public safety.
Case in point: 46 percent of officers admitted to falling asleep while driving and more than 25 percent said they did it repeatedly (at least once a month). This despite their overwhelming consensus – nearly 90 percent – that drowsy driving is as dangerous as drunk driving. Furthermore, ABC News reports, after two years of monthly follow-ups, the sleep-deprived officers also had higher rates of administrative errors, safety violations, anger toward suspects, falling asleep at the wheel or at meetings, and absenteeism.
Time magazine’s Healthland blog noted that the erratic and long shifts required of policemen and policewomen could explain the high rates of sleep disorders. According to the blog, 15 percent of the officers studied had reported working 14 to 16 hours at a time, with roughly 25 percent working rotating day and night shifts. Such a schedule can disrupt sleep and lead to a condition known as “shift work disorder,” found in 5 percent of the officers that participated in the study.
But according to Dr. Charles A. Czeisler of Brigham and Women's Hospital, the study also led to an important clue on the solution to sleep disorders among officers. In an interview with NPR, Czeisler noted that Massachusetts State Troopers had far less sleep apnea than other officers in the study. In Massachusetts, officers are required to pass annual fitness tests and are provided gym equipment and pay for working out – thus reducing obesity rates among Bay State policemen and policewomen. Obesity, Czeisler says, is a prominent risk factor for sleep apnea, so reducing it also reduces drowsiness among cops.
"I'm sure this fitness test has paid for itself many times over in reducing sleep apnea because of the markedly increased health care costs and accident rates among those who have sleep apnea,” Czeisler said. “If that turns out to be the reason, then Massachusetts could be a model for the nation."
What is your reaction to the study? Is it time for shift work to end, or should every policeman or policewoman be responsible for working out? Who should take responsibility for drowsy cops?