Microsleeps: 30 Seconds to Catastrophe

With over 35% of Americans reporting that they receive less than seven hours of sleep per night, it’s not challenging to find people nodding off on the job.1

According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of almost 75,000 adults, 38% reported inadvertently falling asleep during the day at least once in the past month and 4.7% reported nodding off or falling asleep while driving at least once in the past month.1

These brief episodes of sleep, known as microsleeps, are extremely dangerous and regularly implicated in fatal accidents.
A better understanding of microsleeps and preventative measures against these episodes will help you to keep your operations and employees safe.

What is a microsleep?

A microsleep is a brief sleep episode that lasts up to 30 seconds, during which a person temporarily loses consciousness and external stimuli aren’t perceived.2

Microsleeps are most commonly associated with sleep deprivation and driving; however, microsleeps can also occur in the absence of sleep deprivation when completing monotonous, repetitive tasks.

How dangerous are microsleeps?

Microsleep episodes can increase on-the-job errors and can become extremely dangerous if episodes occur during tasks that require constant attention, such as operating heavy machinery or driving.

The following video demonstrates just how dangerous microsleeps can be, especially in situations that require fast reaction times.


Microsleeps have been implicated in several infamous accidents that resulted in catastrophic damage and loss of life. The following statistics highlight the severity of microsleep episodes:

  • 44% of drivers during late-night driving become dangerously tired.6
  • Fatigue has been an contributing factor in 250 fatalities due to air carrier accidents in last 16 years.7
  • Extremely fatiguing work protocols increase the likelihood of an accident from near 0% to 35%.8
  • Chronic microsleeps not only increase probability for injury but also decrease worker productivity and increase likelihood for absenteeism from work.9

What does a microsleep look like?

The behavioral symptoms of microsleeps are subtle and challenging to detect, however the recognizable signs of a microsleep episode are droopy eyes, slow eyelid closing and eye rolling, and also head nodding.3

Because microsleeps often last just a few seconds, it’s hard to tell from a managerial perspective whether or not a worker is experiencing these episodes.

Are individuals aware that they’ve experienced a microsleep episode?

Individuals who experience microsleeps are often unaware that they briefly lost consciousness and will frequently deny that they fell asleep.4 When an individual arouses from a microsleep episode, it may feel like a brief lapse in attention or mind wandering.

Research suggests that even individuals neurons can experience microsleeps, which means that your parts of the brain may be “offline” even if you’re seemingly awake.5

How can you prevent microsleeps from occurring?

Management can implement fatigue management programs to mitigate, monitor and detect worker fatigue to prevent microsleeps from occurring and potentially causing devastating effects.

An individual can avoid microsleeps by getting sufficient sleep, addressing any existing sleep issues, and taking breaks on tasks that are monotonous.

Is fatigue impacting your workers?

It can be challenging to determine if fatigue is negatively impacting your workforce. Some tell-tale signs of worker fatigue issues can include:

  • Increase in absenteeism rates (especially unexpected absenteeism)
  • Increased errors and accidents
  • Lowered productivity
  • Sluggish employees
  • Increased caffeine consumption among workers

To learn more about fatigue and its impact on 24/7 operations, download our white paper titled "The Myths & Realities of Fatigue"

Myths & Realities of Fatigue alt

CIRCADIAN® FRMS and 24/7 Workforce Solutions

CIRCADIAN® is the global leader in providing 24/7 workforce performance and safety solutions for businesses that operate around the clock.  Through a unique combination of consulting expertise, research and technology, software tools and informative publications, CIRCADIAN helps organizations in the 24-hour economy optimize employee performance and reduce the inherent risks and costs of their extended hours operations



  1. Insufficient Sleep Is a Public Health Epidemic. http://www.cdc.gov/features/dssleep/
  2. International Classification of Sleep Disorders Diagnostic and Coding Manual, http://www.esst.org/adds/ICSD.pdf, page 343
  3. Poudel, G. R., Innes, C. R., Bones, P. J., Watts, R., & Jones, R. D. (2012). Losing the struggle to stay awake: Divergent thalamic and cortical activity during microsleeps. Human Brain Mapping: 00:000-000
  4. Higgins, Laura; Fette Bernie (in press). "Drowsy Driving" (PDF). Retrieved 2013-06-12.
  5. Vyazovskiy, V. V., Olcese, U., Hanlon, E. C., Nir, Y., Cirelli, C., & Tononi, G. (2011). Local sleep in awake rats. Nature, 472(7344), 443-447.
  6. Åkerstedt, T., Hallvig, D., Anund, A., Fors, C., Schwarz, J., & Kecklund, G. (2013). Having to stop driving at night because of dangerous sleepiness–awareness, physiology and behaviour. Journal of sleep research
  7. Pilot fatigue is like 'having too much to drink'. CNN. http://www.cnn.com/2009/TRAVEL/05/15/pilot.fatigue.buffalo.crash/
  8. Sirois, B., Trutschel, U., Edwards, D., Sommer, D., & Golz, M. (2010, January). Predicting Accident Probability from Frequency of Microsleep Events. In World Congress on Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering, September 7–12, 2009, Munich, Germany (pp. 2284-2286). Springer Berlin Heidelberg.


Additional Info

  • References:

Home  |  Privacy Policy  |  Terms of Use  |  Sitemap  |  Contact Us

Sign Up to Receive CIRCADIAN News


Contact Information
Email: info@circadian.com
Phone: 1.800.284.5001
Local: 1.781.439.6300


Circadian Headquarters
2 Main Street, Suite 310
Stoneham, MA, 02180, USA