Industrial worker leaning and sleeping on machinery

What Happens When You Don’t Sleep for a Day?

Uninterrupted sleep is important for all aspects of life and particularly when it comes to cognitive fatigue’s direct and measurable role in and the coordination required for complex tasks across heavy industry, such as mining, oil & gas, and construction. In fact, workplace fatigue regularly causes safety incidents, and it can mean the difference between life and death when organizations don’t have a fatigue management plan in place to prevent worker fatigue to ensure safer, more productive, and healthier workplaces.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adults should get at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night. But what happens if your body isn’t getting the rest it needs?

The CDC estimates 1 in 3 adults are getting less than 7 hours of rest each night. Meaning, approximately 30% of our population is sleep deprived. While postponing sleep may leave time for other tasks, there are severe risks of skipping out on shut-eye altogether.

Here at Fatigue Science — our purpose is to enable high performance, safe and healthy waking hours through the world’s leading fatigue management system Readi. With that in mind, in this article, we discuss what sleep deprivation is, how it causes cognitive fatigue and affects your wellbeing, and finally — what you can expect after 24 sleepless hours. Let’s dive in.

What is Sleep Deprivation?

As the name implies, sleep deprivation occurs when you’re not getting the sleep you need. Habitually getting less than 7 to 9 hours of rest each night can result in chronic sleep deprivation, resulting in worker fatigue.

Some heavy industry operators or shift workers are all too familiar with the practice of pushing off sleep to get more done. And while that may seem like a good idea at the moment, nobody can go without sleep — even if you’d like to think you can.

If you’re lacking sleep, the unpleasant side effects of sleep deprivation will catch up to you at some point. However, sleep deprivation impacts everybody in different ways. Some of the more common short-term symptoms include:

  • Workplace fatigue
  • Diminished decision-making and coordination
  • Communication
  • Memory
  • Weakened immune system

When you sleep, your body has a chance to refresh and restore itself after a day or night of work stressors. Depriving yourself of the opportunity to rest after a demanding shift is never a good idea.

What Long-Term Risks Come with Sleep Deprivation?

Everybody knows that just one night of inadequate sleep can leave you feeling tired and cranky the next day. However, not everybody understands the fatigue risks of regularly going without rest.

Cognitive Fatigue and Diminished Productivity and Safety

Not getting enough sleep undermines all other efforts to be productive and safe during your shift. Whether you are operating haul trucks and shovels at a mine site or work in 24/7 operations , skipping sleep to prepare leaves you no better off than if you were to get some sleep instead.

You’re almost always better choosing sleep because your brain at rest consolidates memories, stores new information, improves your attention span, refreshes your energy levels, and readies you to tackle complex tasks.

Beyond the “big” tasks of the next shift, cutting your sleep short influences your overall functionality. When you’re tired, you’re not as sharp, your decision-making skills aren’t on par, and your coordination is off-kilter.

According to the CDC, “if [workers] aren’t getting 7 to 9 hours of recommended sleep each night, [they] might be at risk.”

The scariest part? You’re usually unaware of your impairment, meaning you typically feel like you’re perfectly fine to jump behind the wheel. Your brain is so tired you don’t notice just how exhausted you really are. Even if you don’t feel tired after countless waking hours, your body still needs sleep.

Can Sleep Deprivation Kill You?

Simply put, yes. Forcing yourself to stay awake and abstain from sleep will eventually kill you. In 2012, a man died after attempting to watch every single game in the European Championship and going a total of 11 days without sleep.

How long it can take to pass away, and the exact cause of death may vary from person to person, though. While some individuals take a week or two to pass away, others may perish sooner or later down the line.

When your body is without sleep, it is in a stressed state— your immune system is suppressed, making you more susceptible to illness; you produce more stress hormone cortisol; your blood pressure rises; and your internal temperature drops.

Some people may die because their internal temperature drops so low that they succumb to hypothermia. Meanwhile, others might die as a result of bacteria or illness, since their immune systems are unable to fight off germs or infection.

Industrial worker injured and lying on the ground

For a slew of moral and ethical reasons, researchers do not hold sleep deprivation studies on humans any longer than 2 or 3 days. Everybody is different, and while going days without sleep isn’t healthy for anyone, the time it takes sleeplessness to turn fatal changes from person to person. For that reason, organizations such as the Guinness Book of World Records do not even acknowledge submissions for voluntary sleep deprivation— as it’s a lot more dangerous than people may think.

What Happens After 24 Hours Without Sleep?

Most people have pulled an all-nighter — or even an all-dayer — at some point or another. While you likely don’t look back upon that sleepless night as a “fun” time, you may not realize what you were putting your body through.

After 24 hours without sleep, you’re cognitively impaired. In fact, at just 17 hours without sleep, your judgment, memory, and hand-eye coordination skills are all suffering. At this point, irritability has likely set in. Beyond feeling tired and groggy, you’re more tense, more emotional, your pain receptors are very sensitive, and believe it or not, your hearing is impaired, too.

Your body responds to this lack of sleep by producing more stress hormones and ceasing glucose metabolism to keep you alert and fueled. By now, your brain has probably entered a state of “local sleep.”

During local sleep, parts of your brain shut down and sleep in waves; while some regions and neurons in your brain are resting, others are active. Local sleep helps your mind recharge in-between the times your body has the chance to rest fully.

When local sleep isn’t enough, your brain begins to shut down in trance-like microsleeps. Microsleeps generally last 15 to 30 seconds, but they come in unnoticeable spells. Microsleeping is like zoning out— you’re completely unaware when it’s happening, and once you zone back in, you’ve realized your brain was just blank for however long you were staring off into space.

Microsleeps occur when your brain can no longer prevent sleep. Local sleep was its attempt to restore itself without real rest, but your mind can only stay active for so long. Once it can no longer keep going, it succumbs and microsleeps.

If your brain shuts down and microsleeps while you’re behind the wheel, it can be dangerous, and possibly deadly to not only yourself but others as well.

It’s estimated that as many as 65% of haul truck accidents in open-pit mines are fatigue-related. -Caterpillar Global Mining

What About Losing a Little Sleep Every Night?

Most people don’t go a full 24-hours without sleep. However, that doesn’t mean people are getting the recommended amount of hours each night.

  • What happens if you are only sleeping 3, 4, or 5 hours a night?
  • Is a week of inadequate sleep equal to the same amount of sleep deprivation?
  • Can you “make it up” on the weekend?

As mentioned above, sleep deprivation isn’t just going a night without sleep. Sleep deprivation is getting less than the recommended 7-9 hours each night. Doing this habitually leads to significant issues, such as decreased safety and productivity, and more.

Some people claim they can lose sleep during the week and make it up on the weekend. While it’s still up to a lot of debate, the science seems against it.

The most straightforward and simple solution: work to make sleep a priority and get a good 7-9 hours each night.

Are You Ready to Improve Your Sleeping Habits?

While sleep may be low on our priority list, it’s crucial to leading a healthy work life. Skipping sleep to make time for more work may seem more advantageous to you at the moment, but at the end of the day, sacrificing sleep impacts your mental, physical, and overall health.

As a society, we are sleep deprived; so much so that losing only one hour of sleep when Daylight Saving Time rolls around increases our drowsy driving accident rates by 7%. The National Commission on Sleep Disorders Research reports sleep-related accidents and disorders which impact work productivity cost the American economy between $100 and $150 billion annually.

Sleep deprivation kills, and our failure to recognize the impact of a sleepless night continues to baffle researchers— as humans are the only mammal that actively puts off rest.

We hope this article has given you a greater insight into what happens when you’re entering your 24th hour without sleep. To get better rest and improve your bedtime habits, we have curated a list of sleep tips for industrial workers.

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About the author

Meg Riley is a Certified Sleep Science Coach and writer/editor for Sleep Junkie. After graduating from Penn State University, Meg began writing about the mattress industry and the science behind getting a good night’s sleep.