HCP drives off parking garage after exhausting shift

By Claire Wolters | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published June 12, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • After falling asleep in the hospital parking garage between shifts, a nurse drove her car off its top floor.

  • Long hours of hospital shift work can lead to fatigue, which can impact worker health and safety. Taken to extremes, symptoms of sleep deprivation can mimic those of alcohol intoxication.

  • Hospitals should help staff prioritize rest in order to keep themselves and patients safe.

A Boston nurse suffered a broken arm and back after unintentionally driving her car off the top floor of a hospital parking garage this May.[] Reports say the nurse was sleeping in her car between shifts. She completed her regular shift and was on call at 11:00 p.m. Upon waking, she stepped on the car’s gas pedal instead of the brake, propelling her car over the garage guardrail. 

The incident sheds light on the grueling consequences of shift-induced fatigue on healthcare professionals. According to the American Nursing Association (ANA), fatigue and sleepiness can have several physical and emotional health consequences for workers, including “sleep disturbances, injuries, musculoskeletal disorders, gastrointestinal problems, mood disorders, obesity, diabetes mellitus, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and adverse reproductive outcomes.”[] 

Shiftwork-induced fatigue can also be an important risk factor for drowsy driving, which can lead to accidents like the above—and more—and pose physical harm for both the person behind the wheel and those on the road.

Shift work and risks of drowsy driving

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), being awake for 17 hours is similar to having a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.05%.[] A BAC level of 0.05% is slightly below the federal legal limit for a DUI, but higher than the zero tolerance limit, which is set for certain drivers.[]

The CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) provides an online training course to help nurses and managers educate themselves on the consequences of shift-induced fatigue.[] In the course, NIOSH emphasizes objectives including explaining the connection between long hours of shift work and health and safety risks, identifying examples of health and safety risks linked to shift work and long work hours, and more. Describing the link between sleep and health can also be important.

How to combat shift-induced fatigue?

In its 2014 position statement addressing “nurse fatigue,” the ANA has, for the last decade, emphasized that nurses and employees have an “ethical responsibility to carefully consider” their need for adequate rest and sleep when accepting or offering work assignments, in respect to maintaining worker safety and a high quality of patient care.

Due to the ongoing nursing shortage, however, turning down assignments may not feel possible for all workers or managers. Additionally, according to injury law firm Morgan & Morgan, while some states set limits on the number of hours a nurse can work each day, there are no such federal limits.[]

In these demanding times, innovative solutions may be needed to combat shift-induced fatigue.

While they aren’t solutions to the overwhelming issue, implementing some physical and service-based supports may be able to help reduce risks of shift-induced fatigue. 

Chris McDermott, NP, a certified advanced practice registered nurse practitioner based in Florida, says that supports like shift rotations, technological solutions, and limits on the number of consecutive hours a person can work, can be effective, in some cases, at reducing shift work fatigue. Additionally, providing comfortable break rooms may offer safer environments to sleep and rest between shifts, and offering ride or shuttle services to fatigued workers may reduce risks of drowsy driving.

Overall, it is crucial that hospitals “prioritize the staff's rest.” McDermott says. “Without it, they will be unable to function efficiently and treat patients properly,” 

Creating better working environments for current healthcare workers could also incentivize more people to pursue these careers in the future, thus easing the burden of shift work for those already practicing.

“The working conditions of hospital staff is a systemic issue,” McDermott says. “Fewer people seek these degrees due to the difficult working conditions. The first step is to facilitate workers so that students are less intimidated to pursue a career in this field.”

What this means for you

Fatigue from hospital shift work can have physical health consequences similar to those of intoxication, impacting a worker’s safety and alertness, especially when driving. Implementing support systems to combat fatigue is crucial in protecting workers and patients.

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