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Our Deadly Culture of Overwork

sleepy driving

By now, you’ve probably heard about the automobile accident in New Jersey last weekend that nearly killed comedian Tracy Morgan, and did kill Morgan’s colleague, James McNair. Morgan remains in critical condition and is expected to remain hospitalized for weeks, and three others were seriously injured.

The accident was caused when Kevin Roper, a Walmart truck driver, fell asleep at the wheel. It turns out that Roper had gone without sleep for over twenty-four hours. On Wednesday, Roper pleaded not guilty to one count of death by auto and four counts of assault by auto.

In truth, it’s our political system that deserves to be indicted. Labor protections in the trucking industry are notoriously lax; and sadly, so are scandalously overworked truckers. A statement from the Teamsters noted that “[d]rivers feel pressure from their employers to drive more than 60-70 hours a week with insufficient rest.”

Recently, even the minimal legal protections that truckers do enjoy have come under fire. In the days before Morgan’s horrific accident, Senate Republicans were working like fiends to roll back important safety provisions for drivers. As Autoblog’s Pete Bigelow reports:

[T]he Senate Appropriations Committee approved legislation that would undo rules that only went into effect last year that mandated certain rest periods for truck drivers. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) added an amendment to the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development bill that would suspend a regulation that truck drivers rest for 34 consecutive hours, including two nights from 1:00 AM to 5:00 AM, before driving again. “With one amendment, we’re doing away with rules we worked years to develop,” [transportation safety advocate Daphne] Izer said Monday.

The scary thing is that Collins, the senator leading this assault on public safety and human decency, is what passes as a “moderate” in the G.O.P. these days.

The Republicans’ attempt to force drivers to stay behind the wheel longer and with less rest comes at a time when truck accidents are on the rise. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, truck accident injuries were up 18 percent in 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, and truck accident deaths had increased by 4 percent.

Driver fatigue is a leading factor in large crashes. Experts say that driving while sleep-deprived is physiologically similar to driving while intoxicated by alcohol or drugs. The lack of sleep slows reflexes and impairs judgment.

Sleep deprivation and overwork are pervasive problems throughout the American economy, in fact. Professional class workers are logging in far more hours at the office now than in decades past (PDF). Last summer, an intern at Bank of America Merrill Lynch dropped dead at his desk, and the coroner said the cause of death may have been sleep deprivation and overwork. The notoriously workaholic financial sector responded by taking steps to limit work hours—among other things, weekend work was prohibited. Unfortunately, the new rules didn’t take; as the Financial Times reported, employees who weren’t allowed to come to office on weekends just worked secretly from home instead.

There is abundant evidence that long working hours is incredibly dangerous from a public health perspective. Fatigued or sleep-deprived workers who drive or operate heavy machinery are an obvious menace to public safety, but there are other health costs associated with overwork as well. A 2004 Center for Disease Control report found that excessive overtime was associated with “poorer perceived general health, increased injury rates, more illnesses, and increased mortality,” and a 2008 study linked long work hours to depression and anxiety. Studies have also shown a strong association between working long hours and developing coronary heart disease.

In its culture of overwork, the United States is very much an outlier, when compared to other industrially advanced nations. Unlike much of Europe, we don’t mandate paid vacations or make it illegal for employees to work more than forty-eight hours a week. The usual justification for American employers’ massive overtime requirements is that they enhance “productivity,” but evidence actually suggests that the opposite is true.

Our culture of overwork has many victims. Even the privileged classes who are supposed to benefit most from our deregulated, capitalism-on-steroids modern workplace frequently pay a price. Professional-class workers pay with their health. Our worship of the free market god has so seriously threatened public safety that even the rich and famous like Tracy Morgan aren’t safe from the risks it poses.

Americans began agitating for the right to an eight-hour workday over 200 years ago. Countless workers fought and died for that right before it was institutionalized under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. But, sadly, it looks like this is one battle that we all must continue to fight.