By John K. Murphy
A firefighter recently posed a question asking what authority an employer has to compel mandatory overtime for firefighters, and it became a topic of conversation on the Fire Service Court podcast.
In June 2003, “Maggie’s Law” was passed in New Jersey because of a fatal accident that involved a worker who was driving home after a working 30 hours.8 The law makes it illegal to knowingly drive a vehicle while impaired by lack of sleep. The new sleep and driving law means that the 24 million or so Americans who work in extended-hours jobs had better beware of sleep deficit. It is likely that other states will likely consider such legislation or review their current legislation. By laying out a specific rule about driving and fatigue, the New Jersey law attempts to make it easier to file criminal charges against a driver who falls asleep at the wheel and kills or injures someone.
The law raises the specter of organizational or corporate liability for companies that are deemed to have pressured employees into pushing the limits of fatigue to meet the demands of extended work schedules, such as in the cases of drowsy employees who work long hours, high amounts of overtime, double shifts, or even 24-hour on-call periods at their employer’s request.
The U.S. Department of Transportation identifies fatigue as the number-one safety problem in transportation operations, costing more than $12 billion a year. Sleepy drivers are as much a danger as alcohol-impaired drivers, says the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).9 Two recent Australian studies10 demonstrate that being awake for 18 hours produces impairment equal to a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.05 percent and 0.1 percent after 24 hours; 0.08 percent is considered legally drunk.
A break in continuous shift work may make better economic sense to the fire department employer and may reduce firefighter injuries, compensation costs, and the number of errors noted in these extended-work situations.
5. Donatelle, R and M Hawkins. 1989. “Employee Stress Claims: Increasing Implications for Health Promotion Programs,” American Journal of Health Promotion 3: 19-25.
6. Occup Environ Med 2001;58:68-72 ( January). Professor J M Harrington Institute of Occupational Health, University of Birmingham, Birmingham B15 2TT, UK.