Worker fatigue poses a clear and present danger to the workforce, but how many environment, health, and safety (EHS) teams have a plan in place to mitigate the risk? It’s important to understand the hazards and put a preventive action plan in place at your organization.
Being very tired on the job is as dangerous as being drunk on the job. A widely cited study by Drew Dawson and Kathryn Reid published in Nature examined the relative impairment caused by fatigue compared to alcohol, and the results are startling. Dawson and Reid found that being awake for 17 hours was equivalent to a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.05. After 21 hours, the impairment was equivalent to a BAC of 0.08, and after 24–25 hours awake, the impairment caused by fatigue was equivalent to a BAC of 0.1, over the legal limit. Therefore, an employee performing safety-sensitive work in a sleep-deprived state—or even driving home at the end of a long shift—presents a significant hazard to him- or herself and others.
Common causes of fatigue in the workplace include:
- Workload and schedule. The sort of work (e.g., physically active vs. sedentary) and the work schedule (e.g., shift timings and length, consecutive days on and off) can both affect the risk of fatigue hazards.
- Environmental contributors. Factors such as lighting, temperature, comfort, and noise levels can all serve to either exacerbate or mitigate fatigue hazards.
- Employee health. Personal health issues including sleep apnea, insomnia, and depression can interfere with quantity and quality of sleep and increase the risk of fatigue-related incidents.
Create a Fatigue Risk Management Plan (FRMP)
While many industries are behind in creating specific plans to address fatigue, one is not: the airline industry. In fact, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration provides tools that airline personnel can use to evaluate their fatigue and learn about “fatigue countermeasures,” as well as a guidance document that airlines can use in creating a FRMP for their employees. These guidelines can be helpful for employers in other industries as well.
The guidance recommends addressing issues of employee fatigue through:
- Fatigue management policies and procedures. In some industries, like transportation and health care, fatigue can have serious safety consequences. You should develop a fatigue management policy and procedures based on the specific risks and requirements that exist in your industry.
- Flight time or duty period limitations. In the airline industry, these may be set by regulation or by collective bargaining agreements. Hours of service are regulated in some other industries as well—for example, in the trucking industry. If your industry is not subject to regulatory or collective bargaining limits, you will need to consider the risks and cognitive demands of your workers’ jobs and set shift structures and limitations that will protect against excessive fatigue.
- A rest scheme consistent with limitations. An FRMP must address rest—how long workers need in between successive shifts, and in between extended shift schedules (i.e., consecutive shifts worked for more than 7 days in succession) to rest and fully recover. Rest schedules should also be devised for workers who work unscheduled operations, on-call shifts, work performed across multiple time zones, and reserve assignments.
- A fatigue reporting policy. A fatigue-related event is a near miss just as surely as one that has to do with mechanical failure or simple inattention. Workers should be aware of the need to report these. They should also feel comfortable reporting subjective fatigue, because this can help you to determine whether your program is effective and how it can be adjusted.
- An education and awareness training program. Workers should know how fatigue affects them and the basics of sleep and circadian rhythms. They should be able to identify when they are dangerously fatigued and know how to respond in order to stay safe.
A deliberate effort to manage fatigue can pay off in improved alertness, productivity, and job performance, as well as in improved worker health and reduced accident risk—create your own FRMP today!