As the afternoon wears on, the assembly line keeps its pace, but time itself feels like it’s moving slower and slower. Decision-making is harder; risks are taken; shortcuts are found. It’s the mid-afternoon blood sugar crash, and as far as Dr. Peter Strahlendorf is concerned, it’s one of the oft-ignored aspects of safety in the workplace.
“Willpower is glucose!” Strahlendorf exclaims to an audience at the 2012 Health, Safety and Environment (HSE) Canada Conference on October 3, 2012. “Think of the brain as an absolutely massive user of glucose.”
As an associate professor in the School of Occupational and Public Health at Ryerson University, Strahlendorf says employers need to start applying modern neuroscience in the workplace, and stop using outdated behaviour-based psychology from 50 years ago. Compounded with the modern drive by engineers and designers to focus on the workplace itself – the machines, the controls, the safety devices – and not the brains of workers, is a real missed opportunity, he says.
There’s no such thing as an “idiot-proof” design, he tells the crowd.
“We can have safer behaviour by digging a little deeper and seeing how the brain functions,” Strahlendorf says.
A good starting point for employers is to understand workers' dietary needs, and for workers to better understand the needs of their own bodies, which toil away under the mental and physical stress of life at work and at home. The more stress on the brain, the more glucose levels are depleted.
“Glucose is like gasoline in the car,” Strahlendorf says. “It goes down over time.”
And when the tank is empty, worker training can take a back seat; protective equipment becomes a hassle; concentration wanes; so does co-operation. That’s when accidents happen, he says to the Metro convention Centre crowd in Toronto.
Employers can help to educate workers about the importance of eating protein and complex carbohydrates for steady, long-term glucose production in the body. Strahlendorf says people may feel a boost from candy or some other savoury snack, but it will only give the worker a burst of energy that’s bound to come crashing down.
In addition to having a dietetic advisor, Strahlendorf says it may be wise for employers to have a diabetes detection and management system in the workplace.
One of the men in the audience puts up his hand to share. He says that testing conducted at his plant revealed diabetes levels in the factory were three times higher than in the surrounding community.
A separate study at the facility concluded that the night shift had the worst safety record. Not surprising, Strahlendorf responds. Shift work, he says, can have a negative effect because it often disrupts workers’ eating patterns.
Sleep is yet another important factor in maintaining glucose levels, Strahlendorf explains. While sleeping the brain is able to rest, which maintains glucose levels.
But it’s not just workers on the assembly line that need to keep their blood sugar up. Company leaders who need to make tough decisions many times per day are also depleting their glucose levels.
“It’s the struggle that counts,” Strahlendorf says.
What constitutes a struggle obviously depends on the individual. A person may be having issues with temptation in their life, Strahlendorf says. Whether he or she is trying to quit smoking, or deal with pressures from family issues, these stressors can be serious glucose killers.
“People bring their problems into the workplace with them,” Strahlendorf says.
Once blood sugar drops, willpower crashes, and screw-ups are on the horizon. Then, if the worker does screw-up, it only makes the worker more anxious, making an already dangerous situation even worse.
“It’s a negative spiral getting worse and worse,” Strahlendorf says.
He suggests that next time you revisit safety standards for your business, cookies and juice should be considered as important as personal protective equipment.