Health and Wellness

Are Fatigued Workers a Hazard at Your Company?

With busy schedules and deadlines to meet, sleep is often the first thing to go. But all those late nights and early mornings add up, and sleep deprivation has consequences, including important implications for workplace safety. The National Safety Council (NSC) has chosen fighting fatigue as the Week 2 theme during National Safety Month with its “Recharge to Be in Charge” campaign.

tired warehouse worker

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a third of adults don’t get enough sleep. What’s enough sleep? The CDC says most adults need at least 7 hours per night.

In the workplace, discussions about fatigue and sleep deprivation often center around shift workers. And it’s true that employees who frequently work night shifts or change shifts often are at higher risk of sleep disruption and all its consequences. But shift workers aren’t the only group that experiences elevated rates of sleep deprivation and fatigue.

Workers who work more than one job, those who work long hours or overtime, and those who work in harsh environmental conditions can also be at risk of fatigue, according to an article in the NSC’s Safety + Health magazine. A recent study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that workers in production occupations, healthcare support workers, healthcare practitioners and technicians, food preparation and service workers, and protective service employees such as police and firefighters were more likely to sleep fewer than 7 hours per day than all other major occupational groups.

Safety and health implications

Regularly falling short on sleep can have a wide range of health consequences, including higher risk for obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and depression. In addition, feeling sleepy while operating dangerous equipment or driving a car is a major hazard not only because of the danger of falling asleep while doing so, but also because of the slower reaction times, increased risk of errors, and decreased cognitive ability that can result from fatigue.

Some safety-sensitive industries have regulations intended to mitigate these risks, notably the trucking industry, which must follow the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) hours of service rules. But fatigue can be dangerous in almost any industry. Even workers who don’t perform safety-sensitive jobs need to commute to and from work, often by car, so all employers would be prudent to evaluate and address the risks of fatigue.

According to a 2012 article by the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM), employee alertness depends on a number of factors, including:

  • The work performed,
  • The timing of the shift relative to an individual’s circadian rhythm,
  • Whether the work environment is conducive to alertness or fatigue,
  • Whether there are measures in place to detect excess fatigue,
  • Whether employees get enough sleep during time off,
  • Whether employees have sleep environments conducive to high-quality sleep, and
  • Whether employees have medical or other issues that interfere with sleep.

Not all of these issues are under an employer’s control, notes the ACOEM, but many are. Factors such as lighting, temperature, and pace of work can all be adjusted to reduce the risk of sleepiness and increase alertness on the job.

Recommendations for employers

The ACOEM recommends that employers, particularly those in high-hazard industries, implement a fatigue risk management system (FRMS), which is a program designed to proactively prevent and address fatigue hazards in the workplace. Elements of an FRMS include a fatigue management policy, fatigue risk management, a fatigue reporting system for employees, fatigue incident investigation, fatigue management training and education, sleep disorder management, and a continuous improvement process.

Even without a formal system, all employers can benefit from the following recommended practices to reduce the hazards associated with workplace fatigue:

  • Ensure that staffing levels are adequate for the workload to reduce the need for employees to work long or unusual hours and overtime, which can interfere with sleep.
  • Examine shift schedules and redesign them if necessary to allow employees to get more nighttime sleep.
  • Provide employee training and education about the importance of proper rest, the hazards of working while fatigued, and best practices for quality sleep.
  • Encourage workers to seek treatment for sleep disorders and medical conditions that may impede their ability to get enough quality sleep.
  • Adjust lighting, temperature, noise levels, and workstation design to improve alertness.
  • Schedule critical and highly hazardous tasks during the time when employees are at their most alert.
  • Provide variety in work activities and encourage workers to take breaks to prevent and mitigate fatigue.
  • Train employers and supervisors to recognize the signs of excess fatigue, monitor themselves and their coworkers, and take steps to mitigate safety risks.

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