Imagine you work the day-shift at a plastics manufacturing plant. You wake at 5 o'clock and are on the factory floor by six. It's a deafening cavern echoing with the sound of industrial compressors and engines. For the next 12 hours, with a 30 minute break for lunch and two 15-minute coffee breaks, you stand in front of the rotation moulding machine. Polyethylene pellets are heated to a liquid in a fifty-gallon vat. You pour the blue liquid into one of the three metal moulds; then, using a power-drill, you seal the mould before the machine rotates into the spinning chamber. The filled mould spins like a Catherine Wheel, but, properly sealed, it doesn't spray like a firework.
Today, you're a bit tired. A college buddy was in town. This morning you see the door of the spinning chamber buckle before you hear the crash. The alarm light flashes and you slap the emergency stop button. You pull the doors open and see the ruined mould, the chamber spattered with polyethylene like a scene from a slasher flick. In your exhausted state, you failed to secure two of the bolts. You weren't hurt, thankfully. But it will take the day to replace and safety check the mould. One way or another, someone down the line will pay for that.
What if there was a way to strategically predict and therefore prevent such an accident? What if, by way of an electronic tracker and some outside data-tallying, a company would have the power to know which employees are most tired when and make necessary adjustments?
This is the plan of Fatigue Science, a Vancouver, Canada based tech startup. Using a top-flight suite of data-monitoring technology and some behavioral science-approved algorithms, the company is able to monitor not merely individual sleep duration and quality but also the actual onset of fatigue. Fatigue Science is hoping companies will bet big on tracking such data to make safer, more profitable and efficient work environments. One could easily see hospitals, bus lines and mining companies jumping at the chance to use it. But is giving the boss the tools to track your sleep habits when you’re off the clock inviting more harm than good?
It's an interesting question to raise. One that Jay Stanley a Senior Policy Analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, sees a big issue with.
“Any sort of physiological information shouldn't be forcibly revealed,” he says. “That type of information is at the heart of privacy rights.”
How Fatigue Science Uses Data to Change the Workplace
Fatigue Science is a technology company that specializes in fatigue risk mitigation. Founded in 2006, the company has earned a reputation for itself as a leader in rest consultation, and counts professional sports teams such as the Seattle Seahawks and industrial firms such as Arrow Transportation Systems among its clients. The company says it is able to accurately predict optimal training and recovery times for athletes based on fatigue level and tell when a worker will become dangerously fatigued, for a period of up to 18 hours.
The data monitoring process is rather simple. As Fatigue Science CEO Sean Kerklaan explains, they begin by collecting data about an individual’s activity and sleep through their trademarked Readiband, a wrist-based actigraph clients are asked to wear. The band monitors the body's movement, tracking the onset of sleep, periods of wakefulness in the night, and length of sleep. A continuous period of at least 72 hours is required to return a validated result.
The Fatigue Science system was adopted by Sam Ramsden, Seattle Seahawks Director of Player Health and Performance, in 2013. When the team steamrolled the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, Ramsden's faith in the company's fatigue management was proved well-founded.
Despite the resemblance their Readiband may have with other mainstream products, Kerklaan is quick to quash any comparisons to other monitoring devices.
“Fitbit focussed on the marketing side, we focus on the science first,” he says. “Consumer products can show you when you woke up, etc. But they don't tell you what your six or seven hours of sleep means for how you can perform tomorrow.”
The crux of Fatigue Science’s process comes during the data-evaluation process. This is done using the SAFTE (Sleep, Activity, Fatigue and Task Effectiveness) model, a complex biomathematical algorithm developed by the US Army to simulate the effect of fatigue on cognition and reaction time.
So, whereas most products simply describe a person’s sleeps state in the moment, Fatigue Science, through this algorithm, predicts the onset of fatigue. That means interested employers could, along with a provided dashboard, determine which workers are coming in tired, as well as such information as which worker may be fine in the morning, but fatigued before the end of the shift
It’s impressive stuff, but it’s not without limitations.
Take sleep apnea. Kerklaan suffers from the breathing disorder and, using his own Readiband-collected sleep data, he can spot the symptoms. But it's not enough.
“Our technology can’t diagnose sleep apnea,” says Kerklaan. “But it can equip you with insight to say ‘who should we be looking at’ and asking questions about their sleep quality.”
Still, Fatigue Science is onto something. Companies could use the system to ferret out employees with sleep disorders and recommend them for help. It could also help with scheduling: if a worker wearing the Readiband is showing a fatigue risk for 5pm, an employer looking to cover overtime can choose another, better-rested employee. Everyone becomes a data-point.
Employers could also use the wealth of information to contrast employees based on their off-the-clock activity. Using the Dashboard, a manager can ask 'Is James or Fatima the better sleeper?' 'When does Taliyah hit the pillow?' And, since alcohol has a measurable effect on sleep patterns, the data could even make it could be possible to infer which employees are hitting the bottle before bed.
Do We Really Want the Boss to Know When We Turn Out The Lights?
There is undoubtedly a problem of workplace fatigue. Many factors come into play, including the body’s inability to react to shift work, poor sleep habits and even housing particularities. Myriad studies point to how exhaustion affects everyone from hospital staffers to off shore oil workers. And understanding how workers sleep is the first step to addressing exhaustion. But there’s undoubtedly something invasive and Orwellian about having your rest habits monitored by your employer. We get work emails, Slack messages and texts all the time. Do we really need our boss spying on our sleep habits?
Céline Larivière, the Director of the School of Human Kinetics at Laurentian University used actigraph wrist-monitors in a recent study of fatigue in Northern Ontario wild-land firefighters. But she’s cautious about using similar technology for more than research with volunteers.
“I'm a bit conflicted,” said Larivière. “Using an actigraph for research purposes to establish a link between poor sleep and risk of injury, for example, yes. But then, to monitor everyone? There perhaps are privacy issues.”
The ACLU's Jay Stanley is more blunt. Sleep, he says, is among the information that’s inherently private and there's no question such monitoring technology raises privacy concerns.
Kerlaan assures us that privacy is paramount to Fatigue Science. The company, he says, has built their platform with privileged layers to ensure that only those with permission can see relevant data about a person.
“Typically, ‘your boss’ does not see ‘your’ sleep data,” he said, before offering an example: “Bob’s manager could still be permissioned to review aggregate sleep data and fatigue levels without ever being able to examine Bob’s specifics.”
But, according to the Fatigue Science website, a company manager (or owner or general manager) has full access to all users within their organization.
Stanley is skeptical of the fact that when a boss asks a worker to wear a wrist-band sleep monitor on his off-hours, he is freely giving her consent. It’s just not that easy to say no to the person who hands over your paychecks.
Transparency, Stanley believes, is crucial in any situation where a technology or computer algorithm is making judgments about an individual. But the only way to be rigorous about new technologies and data-mining, he thinks, is to open things up and allow independent experts to study it carefully and ensure people are being treated fairly.
“And if experts say these algorithms are effective,” said Stanley. “The question is: Are these the least intrusive means to attain safety?”
There Are Other Avenues to Bettering Workers' Sleep
Everyone wants their employees to be healthy and well rested. But many companies are tackling fatigue without raising the spectre of inviting Big Brother into their workers' bedrooms. Aetna, for example, offers a “Healthy Living” bonus of up to $300 per year to employees who regularly log at least seven hours of sleep a night. Workers don’t require an actigraph report to prove it.
At Nova Chemicals' polyethylene plant in Alberta, Canada, where heavy machinery daily refines hazardous and potentially flammable material into resin for use in packaging, employees are presented with various programs and perks for better sleep . For instance, they have access to a “recovery room” where they can catch a few Zzz’s if they get too tired to work safely. Nova workers also attend a mandatory ‘fatigue countermeasures’ course when first hired. In-house nutritionists provide tips for good sleep hygiene and healthy eating habits for workers facing a five-week rotation of twelve-hour shifts.
“You can take a twenty minute nap to revitalize you,” said Dan Stocker, an operations technician who has been working at the plant for two years. “You keep your radio on, in case someone needs you. But they don't want you operating heavy equipment like that if you get real heavy eyes.”
Larivière and her colleagues at Laurentian University’s Centre for Research in Occupational Health & Safety also put a premium on sleep education. They hope to reduce fatigue among firefighters by providing accurate information about sleep hygiene, nutrition and hydration, as well as matching caloric intake to energy expenditure.
Kerlaan is the first to agree that knowledge is power and that the key to reducing workplace fatigue lies in understanding the data.
“It's empowering these organizations, with the right nuggets of information can say — ‘here are the highest issues to focus on to improve’,” said Kerlaan. “What we've found is by getting them these nuggets, there’s a huge improvement. Once you begin to pay attention, it begins to be a focus point.”
It may be true that detailed, individualized information will help you better understand your sleep challenges. But if offered a choice between an on-site nap room and having yourwoff-the-clock physical activity (aggregated or not) scrutinized by the boss, what would you choose?
This story has been updated.