The increase in 24 hour business operations and longer work shifts has highlighted the need for effective fatigue management strategies. Research has shown that fatigue can have significant impacts on a business including:
- Reduced productivity (through impaired performance, errors, etc.)
- Increased accidents (15–20% of accidents in transport operations are related to fatigue, surpassing that of alcohol or drug-related incidents)
- Increased personnel costs (e.g. lost time, absenteeism)
In addition, fatigue has significant personal costs to employees including contributing to health problems such as gastrointestinal and cardiovascular disorders as well as the disruption of family and social life.
The importance of fatigue management programs is reflected in the increasing number of legislated requirements and industry guidelines that have appeared both locally and internationally. Within Australia, regulations governing work and break schedules have been in place for many years within the trucking industry. Similar regulations or guidelines exist for other industries including rail, oil and gas and mining.
What is Fatigue?
Fatigue is an acute or ongoing state of tiredness that affects employee performance, safety and health. Fatigue is cumulative – it builds up, leading to a progressive loss of alertness that ultimately causes the person to fall asleep.
The effects of fatigue include:
- Loss of alertness – Loss of alertness is an early sign of fatigue and may include minor memory lapses or difficulty in operating equipment safety.
- Poor judgement – Fatigue affects the ability to think clearly and to make safety-related decisions. The problem is compounded by the fact that someone who is very fatigued may underestimate how fatigued they are.
- Mood change – Fatigued can cause irritability, agitation and the tendency to overreact to issues that arise.
- Drowsiness – When drowsy, a person may experience “microsleeps’ of 3 to 5 seconds. This can be critical if operating heavy machinery or travelling at high speeds. Eventually, this drowsiness can lead to the person falling asleep.
Causes of Fatigue
There are several factors that contribute to fatigue. These include:
Disruption of circadian rhythms
The body has natural or ‘circadian’ rhythms that are repeated approximately every 24 hours. These rhythms regulate sleeping patterns, body temperature, hormone levels, digestion and many other functions. When these rhythms become ‘out of sync’ due to factors such as different sleeping or eating times or even changes in the exposure to light, fatigue can result. A common example of this is jet lag.
The amount and quality of sleep is critical to preventing fatigue. People who do not have enough sleep will incur a ‘sleep debt’. This sleep debt is cumulative and will continue to build up if there is insufficient sleep.
The quality of the sleep is also important. Poor sleep quality is a common problem for those on shift-work since it is often difficult to attain restful sleep during the day or if there is considerable noise.
Many health factors and lifestyle choices contribute to fatigue. For instance, individuals with sleep apnoea (a breathing obstruction during sleep that causes oxygen starvation) do not get enough sleep because they wake frequently during the night. Other health conditions such as diabetes and obesity can also contribute to fatigue as can alcohol, a poor diet, poor physical fitness and the side effects of some medications.
Work factors can be a major contributor to fatigue. Two common examples are long or excessive hours and inflexible deadlines.
Integrating fatigue management programs into business continuity
A risk management approach should be taken when including a fatigue management program into your business continuity planning. The approach may include these key steps:
- Identifying the hazard
- Assessing the risks
- Controlling the risks
- Monitoring the effectiveness of the program
Risk management steps application to fatigue management:
Identify the hazard
- Identify all jobs that are at risk of excessive fatigue
- Identify who may be affected
- Identify the causes of fatigue
Assess the risks
- Identify the potential consequences of fatigue in the selected jobs.
- Determine the likelihood of an incident.
- Assess the level of risk using a risk rating matrix.
Controlling the risks
- Determine the improvements required to reduce the risk to an acceptable level.
- Implement a system for reporting fatigue related problems.
- Monitor any alterations to shift-work schedules and/or work conditions.
- Periodically review the effectiveness of your control measures and the overall program effectiveness.
Controlling fatigue in the workplace ideally involves a number of different approaches that provide several protective ‘barriers’. This may include:
- Ensure adequate staffing levels: As a first step, it is important to ensure that adequate staffing levels have been set in order to enable control over other factors such shift length, amount of overtime and the average time off duty.
- Shift scheduling: In addition to mandatory limits that may exist for shift lengths and rest periods, optimal shift schedules require consideration of issues such as shift structure (eg. permanent or rotating shifts), shift patterns (eg. fast versus slow rotation of shifts) and rest breaks during and between shifts. Shift schedules should also account for factors such as the employee’s commuting time to and from work, employees swapping shifts or overtime assignments. This is best addressed by using fatigue risk models to assess actual (rather than planned) work-rest patterns and to place limits on the number of consecutive working hours or the number of days worked in a row.
- Employee fatigue training & sleep disorder management: It is also important to educate employees on the causes of fatigue and the ways that they can manage their personal fatigue risk. This includes coping with shift-work lifestyle issues and understanding health conditions that may affect the quality of sleep.
- Workplace environment design: Changes in the workplace can also assist in overcoming reduced alertness caused by out of sync circadian rhythms or inadequate sleep. Changes in environmental factors such as the lighting intensity, sound levels, temperature and humidity can be helpful in this regard.
- Alertness monitoring & fitness for duty: A final line of defence is to put measures in place that identify employees who are not suitable for work. Technologies such as alertness monitors and fitness for duty tests are options that can be considered for this purpose.
By taking a systematic approach to fatigue management by including these risks into business continuity plans, companies can minimise fatigue-related incidents while improving employee well being and ensuring compliance with OHS regulations and best practices.