Ahead of another time change, debate rages on

Ahead of another time change, debate rages on

Which is better? Standard time or daylight saving time?

On Sunday, Nov. 1, many Canadians will see time fall back, gaining an hour in the return to standard time (ST).

Ah, fall — that time of year when everything is spiced with pumpkin, old Halloween costumes are dusted off, and we get one blissful extra hour of sleep as we fall back to standard time (ST).

On Nov. 1, many jurisdictions across Canada will fall back an hour as daylight saving time (DST) ends for another year.

For many of us, it’s a way to catch up on some extra sleep that we need, since a majority of Canadian adults are not meeting the minimum of seven to nine hours of sleep per night.

The opposite of course is DST, where we spring forward an hour and actually lose an hour of sleep, temporarily adding to the sleep debt that many of us already have.

So why do we rotate between the two, and is one better than the other?

History of daylight saving

Many of us were told to blame the farmers for bringing in DST.

The truth is, it was first implemented in — wait for it — Port Arthur, Ont., in 1908.

This was followed by Australia, Great Britain, Germany and then the U.S., who implemented it as a means of conserving fuel (mostly coal) by reducing the need for artificial light during the First World War.

Since that time, there have been numerous studies that suggest any benefit of saved energy during the summer months are offset by the winter months.

Regardless of which side you lean to (DST or ST), pretty much everyone is in agreement that we hate having to switch back and forth between the two.

Daylight saving vs. standard time

The debate has now shifted to which one is better. And the gloves are coming off.

People are confused by DST and ST.

Very simply, DST has us wake up earlier (in darker hours) and gives us sunlight later in the day and evening hours.

On the surface, this sounds great! We can stay up longer and cram more into our evening hours.

Businesses such as restaurants, tourism and entertainment venues will see the commercial benefit.

Detrimental effects of DST

The downside of DST? We are harming ourselves physically, mentally and emotionally.

Light is the primary synchronizer of our body clock, keeping our circadian rhythms in harmony with each other and the light-dark rotation of our planet.

As a diurnal species, we are designed to rise with the sun and set with the sun.

What DST does is force us to work against the planet, causing our rhythms to not only drift, but desynchronize. Waking up when it’s still dark outside becomes more difficult, as we’re programmed to get our best sleep during those hours.

The result is that we wake up with more sleep inertia — that groggy feeling that makes us want to throw our alarm through the wall into the room next door.

Think of how this may affect you. We now have groggy bus drivers transporting our groggy kids to school, and groggy commuters wreaking havoc on the roads as we try to make our way to work.

What about those who work night shifts, you ask? Won’t it help them? To some degree, yes. But it will make their dayshift assignments a real problem!

We will see more errors and incidents at the worksite in the morning hours and poorer shift handovers during the morning exchange. There is no benefit to rotating shift workers.

The argument for permanent ST

The later we have sunlight exposure due to DST, the harder it will be to fall asleep at our “normal” bedtime.

You will be pushed to a later start time, not only because of the psychological effect of light at in the evening, but because light reduces melatonin production — our natural sleep hormone.

Melatonin helps us fall asleep and stay asleep. Without it, we incur less quantity and quality of sleep.

There are additional consequences to this, including a negative impact on our immune system (hello, COVID-19) and our mood (welcome, anti-depressants) and less clean-up of the toxins in our brain from the double whammy of being awake longer and getting less sleep (nice to meet you, Alzheimer’s disease).

Leading sleep neurobiologists and circadian researchers worldwide are in agreement — to keep our body clock in sync with our solar clock, it is best to eliminate DST and stay on permanent ST.

The results speak for themselves:

  • better sleep
  • longer sleep
  • improved mental health
  • improved immune systems
  • safer commuting
  • safer work environments.

Now, where can I find a good pumpkin latte?

Mike Harnett is a human factors specialist and president of Solaris Fatigue Management in Vancouver.

Walking on Sunshine

Walking on Sunshine

Walking on Sunshine: The Key to Surviving 2020

Photo by Radu Florin on Unsplash

July 29, 2020

Mike Harnett

President Solaris Fatigue Management



I’m staring daggers at my coffeemaker impatiently drumming my fingers against my chipped mug, swearing at it to hurry up.

Today, I need to jump-start my brain. I’m on edge. Sleep didn’t come easy after watching the late night news, something I normally and deliberately avoid. I tossed and turned, worried about COVID, and racism, and riots, and the economy, and a second coming of the toilet paper famine.

I’m hoping the coffee will make me feel less… murdery.

Brew now in hand, I step outside and pace around the yard. It’s no surprise that stress is taking a toll on us. Stress typically turns off when the stressors disappear.  But what makes our current situation unique is that the stress isn’t going away, and there’s no timeline for when it will.

The truth is, we may never experience a return to normal as we knew it pre-2020.


In the past, stress, depression and mental health disorders were viewed as a cause of insomnias and other sleep disorders. Only recently has science revealed that it’s actually the opposite.  In fact, the less sleep, the higher the risk for mental health issues such as depression, schizophrenia, low impulse control and suicidal thoughts.1

So, in order to maintain a healthy mind, we need a healthy sleep. Most of us now recognize that adults require at least 7-9 hours of quality sleep to repair the brain and body from the stressors of the day.2

More specifically, it is during the latter part of our sleep period that we spend most of our time in REM sleep. This is the critical period for our brain to recharge both our cognitive abilities and emotional tolerances. If we can’t fall asleep, or cut our sleep short, or wake up throughout the night, you will be lacking the tools to deal with the next challenge 2020 throws at us.

Therein lies the conundrum. A lack of sleep escalates our stress, and the more stress, the more cortisol and adrenaline are dumped into our system, escalating our sleeplessness. A vicious cycle erupts.

And that’s why I step outside. To break the cycle!


How does stepping outside help? It’s simple really.


Yup… that’s the key to managing all this toxic plume swirling around us. Well, it’s one of the keys.  A really big key.  The biggest key.

Here’s the science. As humans, our sleep-wake cycle is controlled by the amount and timing of light exposure. Sunlight is the single most powerful synchronizer we have, regulating our mood, energy levels, and sleep abilities by making sure our body rhythms work in harmony with each other, not against each other.

When we go out into the bright sunlight, it converts certain foods that contain tryptophan into serotonin. How much is produced is directly related to the amount of tryptophan in your diet and the amount of bright sunlight you’re exposed to in the day. The brighter the sunshine and the longer you’re exposed to it, the more serotonin produced. 

Serotonin is known as one of our “happiness” hormones, giving us sensations of joy and pleasure, and basically making us nice people to be around. We’re kinder, communicate better (without swearing) and are less likely to over-react when the kids paint the dog.

Sunshine = increased stress tolerance and better mood – Check!

But that’s not all it does. When the sun starts to set, the brain reaches into our serotonin stores and converts it to melatonin. Melatonin is our natural sleep hormone, helping us to fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night. Low serotonin means low melatonin.

Sunshine = better and more sleep – Check!

So, to help us cope with pandemics, protests, and people in general, we need to do two things.

1. Eat a diet rich in tryptophan.

Tryptophan is especially high in proteins such as fish, meat, eggs, dairy and nuts and we need sufficient quantities to produce serotonin. Quinoa gets a shout out as well.

You can also get it as a nutritional supplement if you’re worried you’re not getting enough – I’m looking at you vegans!

2. Get outside.

Morning sun is preferable as it synchronizes our body rhythms to a daytime schedule. On a cloudless day, depending on the time of year, it can range from 10,000 to 50,000 lux of light!

Even on a cloudy day, the lux levels outside are significantly higher than in your house or office which sit around 300 – 500 lux of light. So pull on those rain boots and strut outside for an hour or so.

In winter time, especially for us pasty-faced Canadians, we have less light exposure, which explains why depression levels are so much higher during that time of year. There are all kinds of light boxes that you can buy to help you get the light fix you need. Just be sure to get one that replicates at least 10,000 lux of light.

Unfortunately, working at night or having an erratic sleep schedule can further disrupt serotonin production and subsequently, melatonin levels. Here’s where many of our frontline workers are at elevated risk. The low serotonin levels can result in sleep disorders such as insomnia, in addition to increases in mood swings, anger levels, and even addictive behaviours.3

Using a light box can provide significant benefits to these workers when walking in sunshine isn’t an option.

While some may think that buying synthetic melatonin is the answer, they are a complex hormone that, if taken in the wrong amount, or not timed correctly, can create significant health consequences. Our melatonin requirements vary wildly from person to person and even day to day. Recent research illustrates the many risks associated with it and why we should limit its use.4 


Sunshine helps us develop our body’s natural defences against stress by improving sleep. Since your brain can’t repair itself while you’re sitting on the couch watching The Real Housewives of Moose Jaw, go outside and catch some rays.

1Brooks, Megan. (2014, June 2). Suicide More Likely After Midnight. https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/826054

2National Sleep Foundation Recommends New Sleep Times | Sleep Foundation. (2020). Retrieved 29 July 2020, from https://www.sleepfoundation.org/press-release/national-sleep-foundation-recommends-new-sleep-times

3 Pirola, Carlos J. (2007). Serotonin and Serotonin Transporter Gene Variant in Rotating Shift Workers. Sleep. Aug. 2007

4 Cipolla-Neto, José; Gaspar do Amaral, Fernanda. (2018). Melatonin as a Hormone: New Physiological and Clinical Insights, Endocrine Reviews, Volume 39, Issue 6, December 2018, Pages 990–1028.

How Fatigue Amplifies Risks of Workplace Hazards

How Fatigue Amplifies Risks of Workplace Hazards

Article for OHS Canada Magazine by Zena Ryder, includes an interview with Mike

If you feel sleepy at the office, you stretch and make some coffee. No harm done. Your drive home is when you —and those around you — face the greatest risk. In 2011, nearly a fifth of Canadians nodded off while driving, according to the Traffic Injury Research Foundation. “As a society, we have a fatigue problem,” says Mike Harnett, president of Solaris Fatigue Management in Vancouver. “Canadians are frequently not getting enough sleep.” As many as one in three adults ages 35 to 64 are getting less than the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep per night, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. Multiple factors contribute to fatigue, including health conditions, insufficient or poor-quality sleep, work demands and lack of adequate breaks during a shift. “The risks of any workplace hazard are multiplied when workers are fatigued,” says Harnett.

Fatigue problems are far-reaching and no workplace is immune. However, it’s impossible to know exactly how serious the problem of workplace fatigue is, she says. In part, the uncertainty is because there’s currently “no consensus on the definition of workplace fatigue,” according to a 2019 report by the CSA Group in Toronto. “Workplace Fatigue: Current Landscape and Future Considerations” calls for a national standard on workplace fatigue, suggesting the possibility that workplace impairment standards might address the issue along with other types of impairments such as stress or drugs. Aside from providing a cross-industry definition of workplace fatigue, a standard would outline how organizations with varying resources could tackle fatigue risk management, the report states.

Transportation risks

Fatigue factors greatly within the transportation industry. The daily freight rail schedule is unpredictable, says Eric Barker (pseudonym), a locomotive engineer with CN Rail. (OHS Canada is protecting Eric’s identity to prevent repercussions at his workplace.) The unpredictability makes it hard for workers to ensure they get enough sleep before shifts, he says. Even if it would be safer to stop and nap during a shift, there’s a built-in incentive to keep a train moving — CN Rail pays engineers and conductors by distance travelled, according to Barker. Furthermore, regulations don’t allow engineers and conductors to nap, even if their train is stationary for an extended period, he says. “CN rules say you’re not allowed to nap,” says Barker. “You’re not even allowed to assume the position of sleep. And cabs have cameras and voice recorders in them so management can monitor engineers and conductors.” Despite Barker’s comments, safety remains a core value at CN Rail, according to spokesperson Jonathan Abecassis.

“Any employee that feels fatigued or has safety concerns has a duty to report it and use alternative means to complete the assigned task safely. CN and the rail industry are currently in the process of revising the work/rest rules to ensure that they reflect the latest science- and fatigue-management practices.”

Fatigue is also an issue in the trucking industry. Federal regulations prohibit more than 13 hours of driving time in a day. Time off is also regulated. However, truckers’ paper logbooks are easily falsified. After the 2018 bus crash involving the Humboldt Broncos, the federal government created new rules that come into force in 2021. Federally regulated carriers must fit their trucks with electronic tamper-resistant black boxes that record drivers’ time behind the wheel.

No simple fix

Fatigue also factors into emergency medical departments, says Dr. Jeffrey Eppler of Kelowna General Hospital. Decision-making worsens when a caregiver isn’t well rested or if it’s the time of day when humans are wired for sleep, he says. “Empathy and compassion are dialled down in the middle of the night,” says Eppler. “Unfortunately, getting sick or injured after midnight increases a patient’s risk. But people are going to get sick or injured at 4 a.m., and all we can do is mitigate the risks as best we can.” Eppler always naps at least three or four hours before a night shift. He also impresses upon staff the importance of sleep, telling them it’s a “sacred responsibility to be well rested” before coming to work. Restricting shift length is necessary, but it isn’t a simple fix, he says. “There can be unforeseen consequences of restrictions on shift length. For example, suppose someone leaves the hospital at the end of their 24-hour on-call period. The new person who comes on might not know the patient and their situation, which can lead to worse outcomes. On that occasion, going over the 24-hour limit might lead to better outcomes.” But restrictions on shift length alone are not enough to improve outcomes, says Harnett, noting it’s also essential to have in place “a formal and well-documented protocol” for shift handovers to minimize the risk of medical mistakes.

Fatigue as impairment

When compared to alcohol consumption, being awake for 21 hours is akin to consuming three glasses of wine in one hour, according to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. And just as one glass of wine can still have a detrimental effect on performance, lower levels of fatigue have detrimental effects, too. The National Transportation Safety Board found that significantly more mistakes are made after 11 hours awake. The effects of fatigue include lowered concentration and ability to focus, impaired risk assessment and judgment, as well as slower reaction time. Still — as every workplace is different — no simple solution exists, says Harnett, noting the responsibility for managing fatigue must be shared. “Employers are responsible for maintaining a safe work schedule, promoting a healthy workplace culture around fatigue, keeping work demands within reasonable boundaries and ensuring an environment that doesn’t exacerbate fatigue,” she says. “Employees are responsible for doing their best to make sure they show up fit for work each day. They need to manage any sleep disorders or health issues and prioritize getting enough sleep.” If safety professionals want to improve workplace culture regarding fatigue, Harnett recommends appealing to the business impact of fatigue in order to get management on board. “As well as being good for employees, there’s a solid business case for managing workplace fatigue,” she says.

At work, being awake is not good enough

At work, being awake is not good enough

This article recently appeared in OHS Canada

One of your top workers is rubbing his eyes, yawning and moving slowly. You know that “John” still has four more hours on shift in a safety-sensitive job. You ask him how he is and he responds: “I’m fine, just a little tired.” What do you do? Do you get him a cup of coffee? Make him take a break? Or do you tell John to just be safe out there? What actual written procedures do you have in place for your supervisors to follow?

Fatigue is not simply a state of feeling tired. Fatigue can be a hazard in and of itself, but what is often overlooked is how fatigue can elevate the risk of other hazards you’ve already identified. To prevent errors and incidents from happening, it takes more than just having a worker show up with eyes open.

While there are a number of personal reasons why a worker may be struggling with fatigue, at some point we have to start looking at the flaws in the system — not just the flaws in the worker.

The science is clear: workplaces need to understand their role in the promotion and mitigation of fatigue. The most important factor in their control comes down to the design of work schedules. There are two components to consider in a schedule design — the time of day that the work is being done (circadian factor) and the length of hours on and off duty (homeostasis factor).

Humans are not nocturnal

Based on our circadian rhythms, humans are a diurnal (day-oriented) species. This means we will always perform better and be more alert and safe when working during daylight hours, and get our best sleep during dark nighttime hours. We are at our worst between midnight and 6 a.m. when we are programmed for sleep, and suffer poor sleep when trying to sleep during daytime hours. There is also a dip in our rhythms in the early afternoon (the siesta period), which can also affect alertness and performance. Most importantly, research has demonstrated that less than three per cent of night workers show any physiological adaptation to night shifts. In other words, we have yet to figure out how to turn our species into nocturnal animals. So, while you may think you’ve adapted, the truth is, you’ve adapted to being in a state of impairment — it’s your new normal.

Night-shift risks

Recognizing that shift workers are at higher risk for fatigue and performance impairment, consider the following:

  • Do one or more shifts exceed 12 hours in a 24-hour period?
  • Do any shifts start or finish between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m.?
  • Do changes to a roster, or posting of shift assignments occur with less than two weeks’ notice?
  • Are complex or critical tasks scheduled during the high-risk zones?

The longer you’ve been awake, the more sleep pressure builds in the brain due to a depressant called adenosine. The result is that after being awake for 14 hours, sleepiness starts to set in. At 17 hours, you are the equivalent of .05 blood alcohol impairment (BAC). At 18 hours, you will be struggling to stay awake. At 20 hours, you are equivalent to .08 BAC, and your cognitive abilities drop by up to 40 per cent. Back to John. If he works a 12-hour shift, considerations would need to include when he woke up, length of his commute and any other factors that might influence how long he’s been awake, in addition to circadian factors.

If John’s on a night shift, that means a minimum of 12 hours off duty before his next shift. Ask yourself:

  • Do some extended hour shifts exceed 12 hours?
  • Are more than three consecutive 12-hour night shifts worked?
  • Is there less than 12 hours undisturbed rest after a 12-hour night shift?
  • Do employees work more than 60 hours in a seven-day period?
  • Are there irregular and unplanned schedules as a result of call-outs?
  • Is overtime unmonitored?

If you have identified flaws in the scheduling system, that doesn’t mean you have to throw it out. It does mean that you need to put a plan in place to mitigate the risk attached to those flaws.

Because being awake is not enough.

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: Sleep FAQs Part 2

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: Sleep FAQs Part 2

In my previous blog, we reviewed frequently asked questions I get at conferences, such as why we get up to pee in the middle of the night, what my dreams really mean, and how to reclaim sleep after bringing a baby into the mix. In Part 2, we delve into the impact of technology, sleep disorders, prescription meds and of course, non-prescription sleep aids. 

1. I’ve heard looking at my smart phone can be bad for my sleep. How come? 

All of our smart technology is driven by blue-enriched LED light. Within the full spectrum of light, there is a particular blue stream that has a direct effect on our ability to sleep by suppressing the production of Melatonin and affecting our circadian drive. Melatonin is our natural sleep hormone. It’s what helps us fall asleep and stay asleep. 

During daytime hours, blue light exposure (including sunlight) is excellent. It can enhance our moods, improve focus and concentration, and actually help us sleep better at night. However, it’s all about timing and any night time exposure (after the sun has gone down) is strongly discouraged. Since the impact of light is affected by distance, small handheld devices like smart phones, e-readers, IPads, tablets and laptops are more damaging due to their proximity to your eyes than a big screen TV across the room. 

While many devices have dimming features to ease eye strain, that is not the same as a blue light filter and will do nothing to prevent the suppression of melatonin. Most of our newer devices have built in blue-light filters to reduce this damaging effect. Check if your device has one. Go into settings, display, and then look for either “night shift” or “blue light filter” to activate it. 

If you’re a day worker, use the automated “sunrise to sunset” feature. If you’re a shift worker, you may want to select specific times for it to activate. Your screen will turn a pink or orange-ish hue and greatly improve the chances of you getting a restful sleep. If your device doesn’t have a blue light filter, there are plenty of free blue light filter apps available online. 

2. I’ve heard you can buy Melatonin. Do you recommend it? 

Here’s what we know. It has been heavily marketed in recent years as a safe way to help get sleep, but synthetic melatonin is not the same as what your body produces, and does not take you through the sleep cycle like natural melatonin. Many side effects have been noted, including excessive grogginess the next day after you use it, upset stomach, and very vivid, horrific nightmares. It is also not recommended for people who have a history of depression, as it can enhance these feelings, or a history of seizures. 

Recent scientific literature is advising that you restrict the use of Melatonin on a temporary basis, such as when you’re travelling across time zones, to help offset jetlag, but not to use it on a regular basis as a sleep aid. Not everybody produces, or requires, the same amount of melatonin, and the timing of taking it is just as important as the amount. For example, some need it earlier in the day than others. As for parents giving it to children, there simply isn’t enough long term research on the effects of children, but given what we know about the effects on adults, why take the risk of giving them nightmares or affecting the quality of their sleep. 

If you suspect your lacking melatonin, a safer and gentler alternative is the natural supplement called L-Tryphtophan. It is the precursor needed for the body to produce serotonin in the gut, which ultimately is synthesized into our own natural version of melatonin. 

3. How do I know if I have a sleep disorder? 

Very simply, if you wake up unrefreshed and struggle to stay alert throughout the day, you could have a sleep disorder. If it takes you longer than 30 minutes to fall asleep, and you wake up several times during the night and can’t fall back asleep, you could have a sleep disorder. Most importantly, if someone tells you that you snore loudly, or has heard you gasp or choke during the night, you could have a sleep disorder. In this case, you may be suffering from Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA). 

OSA is becoming more and more prevalent and is probably the most dangerous. It’s the result of something blocking our airway while we sleep. We literally stop breathing. When it repeatedly lasts for more than 10 seconds, you officially have OSA. This means we starve both the heart and the brain of oxygen, and this leads to all kinds of other significant health issues including cardiovascular disease and stroke. It also means we don’t get through all of the sleep stages that we need to because every time we gasp for air, it wakes us up and kicks us out of the sleep cycle, thus preventing us from getting the recuperative sleep we need. You’ll be constantly exhausted, unable to focus, and emotionally drained. 

While obesity is a prime contributor to the onset of OSA (a size 17 neck for men and 16 for women is a primary risk factor), that doesn’t mean other people can’t have airway obstructions. Adults and kids alike can have enlarged tonsils or adenoids that block the airway. A narrow palette with a wide tongue could collapse back into the throat during sleep. Sleeping on your back is also a known cause. Heavy smokers, drinkers and those using sedatives are at high risk, as they all cause the muscles of the throat and tongue to relax and collapse on themselves. 

It has been reported that 1 in 4 Canadian adults have symptoms of OSA. If you think this may be you, book an appointment at a sleep clinic to get checked out. Depending on the severity, you may be outfitted with either a dental appliance (minor OSA) or a CPAP machine (severe OSA). A CPAP machine is one that provides continuous positive air pressure to ensure the airway stays open while you sleep and is the most effective method for combatting OSA. Check if your benefit plan covers the cost of these devices. 

4. What sleep medication would you recommend? 

In short? None. And not only because I’m not a Doctor. Both prescription and non-prescriptions medications (including melatonin) disrupt your natural sleep cycle so they don’t replicate normal sleep patterns. Alcohol needs to be included here, as many people turn to is as a sleep aid. 

Prescriptive medications (benzodiazepenes) are highly addictive and their use should be limited to being a last resort and only under the strict guidance of your doctor. However, even over-the-counter meds can create high tolerances and come with other side-effects. More importantly, taking medication only treats the symptoms, not the problem. Stress is a common cause of sleep disturbance, in addition to those previously mentioned. You need to address the heart of the matter for the best results! 

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