Fatigue and worker safety

  • Risk factors for occupational fatigue include long work hours, a heavy workload, lack of sleep, environmental factors and medical conditions.
  • Experts say employers can help combat fatigue by offering breaks, scheduling work when employees are most alert and promoting the importance of sleep.
  • The National Safety Council has launched an initiative about fatigue, gathering data with the aim of identifying solutions and releasing a policy toolkit and other resources.

 A 2012 guidance statement from the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine defines fatigue as the body’s response to sleep deprivation or lengthy physical or mental hard work. Risk factors related to occupational fatigue include long work hours, a heavy workload, lack of sleep, environmental factors and medical conditions.

Even dealing with other people can result in fatigue, one researcher notes.

Fatigue risk management systems

Medical and lifestyle interventions, as well as work organization factors, can help promote alertness, according to a 2012 American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine guidance statement on fatigue risk management in the workplace. Organizations in which employees work long hours or at night – especially those with safety-sensitive jobs, such as in the energy, health care and transportation industries – can benefit from addressing fatigue.

ACOEM outlines the following key features of a fatigue risk management system:

  • Supported by peer-reviewed science
  • Decisions determined by data collection and analysis
  • Designed by stakeholders
  • Systemwide use of tools, systems, policies and procedures
  • Constructed into the corporate safety and health management systems
  • Continuous improvement
  • Budgeted
  • Senior leaders take ownership

Other critical elements include a safety management policy, risk management, reporting, incident investigation, training and education, and auditing.

Key defenses of a fatigue risk management system are:

  • Balancing workload and staffing
  • Shift scheduling
  • Training for employees on fatigue and managing sleep disorders
  • Workplace design
  • Monitoring of fatigue

Although workers are responsible for being well-rested, managers should provide information, motivation and resources, ACOEM states.

In addition, workers should be educated about issues, such as fatigue-related hazards; sleep disorders; how to get adequate and quality sleep; how to recognize fatigue; the importance of diet, exercise and other health conditions; and alertness strategies, including designing workplaces with bright light, cool temperature, non-monotonous noise and low humidity.

Possible solutions

Although workers can help prevent fatigue through measures such as taking breaks and adopting better sleep habits, employers also can help combat the issue.

A November report from RAND Europe, part of the nonprofit research organization RAND Corp., concluded that lack of sleep results in a 13 percent increased risk of death and the loss of 1.2 million workdays per year in the United States. The report offers the following recommendations for employers:

  • Understand the importance of sleep and promote it.
  • Create brighter workplaces with settings for naps.
  • Deter lengthy use of electronic devices after work.

Read the RAND Europe report on workers and sleep.

According to a Liberty Mutual report, recommendations for scheduling include:

  • Working during the day rather than at night
  • Restricting consecutive day shifts to five or six days and night shifts to four days
  • Ensuring workers have at least two consecutive days off
  • Making schedules consistent
  • Providing frequent breaks

Supervisors should be alert for signs of excessive fatigue among workers, such as yawning, head dropping, and difficulty remembering or concentrating, according to the statement from ACOEM.

Technology also can be used to monitor fatigue. For example, Chicago-based USG Corp., a manufacturer of construction materials, placed sensors in its trucks to monitor operators after one dozed off behind the wheel, resulting in the truck traveling up a berm and its load tipping over. The operator – who had worked more than 55 hours the previous week and was helping his family with another job – was uninjured, Justin Dugas, safety and health director at USG, said during the NSC panel. (USG is a member of the Campbell Institute at NSC.)

The sensor tracks an operator’s eye movements and sends alerts through a loud buzzing or vibration of the seat when distracted driving or sleep is detected. Video footage is sent to a monitoring center for analysis.

During the initial months after the sensors were installed, two or three fatigue-related incidents occurred daily. They decreased to two or three per week, then one or two per month, Dugas said.

 

From: osha.gov