What is fatigue?
The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) defines fatigue as “the state of feeling very tired, weary or sleepy which may be a result of insufficient sleep, prolonged mental or physical work or extended periods of stress or anxiety.”
How big of a problem is it and should employers be concerned?
The results of an online survey conducted with Canadian workers suggest that 76 per cent of people are regularly tired while working. 31 per cent of respondents reported being tired “very often” on the job. A 2014 analysis of 27 observational studies related to fatigue estimated that up to 13 per cent of injuries could be attributed to fatigue. Productivity losses related to fatigue were estimated at $2,000 per worker annually, according to estimates from a 2010 study conducted by California based Alertness Solutions. Approximately 20 per cent of all fatal traffic accidents are related to fatigue, according to Transport Canada.
Fatigue is an under estimated hazard in many workplaces, affecting productivity and health and safety for both workers and the general public.
Fatigue can be triggered by both personal and work-related factors. A variety of underlying health problems including thyroid disorders, diabetes, sleep disorders and mental health illnesses such as depression and anxiety can contribute to a lack of good quality sleep.
Lifestyle risk factors include the obvious lack of sleep, but poor nutrition, lack of hydration and of regular exercise, alcohol and/or drug use, increased stress, working more than one job and family/social commitments can all contribute to fatigue.
A variety of workplace factors have also been identified as contributing to occupational fatigue, including:
● Shift work, particularly night shifts
● Long shifts and or long weeks
● Long commutes to and from work
● Not enough recovery time between shifts
● Early morning starts
● Physically or mentally strenuous tasks
● Monotonous or repetitive tasks
● Extremely hot or cold environments
● High noise environments
How does fatigue affect our ability to function?
Fatigue affects our ability to function both physically and cognitively. An individual who is fatigued might experience:
● Tiredness or sleepiness, which may result in “microsleeps” (head nods, drooping eyelids)
● Reduced co-ordination and reaction time
● Short term memory issues
● Difficulty concentrating/focusing
● An increased risk for health issues such as heart disease, diabetes and depression
A study of construction workers in British Columbia examined the physical and cognitive impairment level of workers who had been awake for 17, 21 and 24-25 consecutive hours. Workers who had been awake for 17 hours presented with physical and cognitive impairment similar to having a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.05 (A BAC of 0.05 or greater is considered impaired under the N.L. Highway Traffic Act). After 21 hours without shut eye, impairment similar to having a 0.08 BAC was noted with an increase to 0.10 BAC after being awake for 24-25 hours. While we would never tolerate impairment by alcohol or drugs on site, impairment by fatigue often gets overlooked or downplayed.
Construction High Risk Industry
Considering the nature of work undertaken in the construction industry, it is not hard to identify with many of the risk factors associated with fatigue, particularly for those who:
● Do rotational work for example, working 21 days on, seven off
● Have fly-in/fly-out jobs
● Work seasonally, often working 50 plus hours a week
● Commute long distances for project work often combined with shifts averaging 10 hours
● Start work early in the morning, like road workers and snow plow operators or leave very early to drive to site
● Carry out very physically but also mentally taxing work, in terms of planning and high-risk activity
● Work in harsh environmental conditions, including high noise environments
● Perform monotonous or repetitive work, like traffic control, tying rebar etc.
Personal and occupational risk factors, coupled with high risk work such as working at height or with hazardous materials, operating heavy equipment and working in high-risk environments is a recipe for disaster. Lack of focus, poor judgment and decision making mistakes or falling asleep (even microsleeps) while operating equipment or performing tasks can lead to very serious consequences on a construction site.
In a 2017 study by the American National Safety Council, 80 per cent of workers reported having two or more risk factors for fatigue, yet only 39 per cent of employers believed that workers would be comfortable admitting that they were too tired to perform their job.
Why is my workers’ sleep my responsibility?
Workers have a responsibility to manage personal factors and show up fit for work. When work factors contribute to fatigue and workers are carrying out high risk work, the employer has a responsibility to eliminate or mitigate the risk. When health, safety and productivity can be negatively impacted, an employer is obligated to intervene.
How do I manage the risk of fatigue in the workplace?
Employers looking to address the risk of fatigue can incorporate a fatigue risk management program (FRMP) into their existing health and safety management system. This would include conducting a risk assessment, implementing appropriate controls and educating workers.
Conduct a risk assessment
This process is similar to completing any other hazard assessment however, focuses solely on potential for injury resulting from fatigue.
Start by considering factors that place workers at increased risk. The activities of all staff should be considered as risk factors may be different for each role or task. The individual experiences of workers can also assist in identifying potential risk. This can be accomplished by engaging workers in a discussion about fatigue, using surveys, etc.
Once a factor contributing to fatigue has been identified, the level of risk associated with each situation must be evaluated. This is based on the likelihood of such an event occurring and the severity of potential injury to the workers, following exposure to the hazard. When evaluating risk, the activities being performed by the worker or group of workers in question must be considered. Tasks such as working at height or operating heavy equipment could result in a serious, if not fatal, incident if a worker was not both physically and mentally alert.
Controls, based on the level of risk must be implemented to eliminate or if elimination is not possible, mitigate the risk to workers.
The organization should establish a fatigue management policy to provide guidance and communicate expectations with respect to fatigue management including the requirement to report. It would also outline the responsibilities of the employer, supervisors and workers for managing fatigue at the workplace.
Procedures must be developed for identified risk factors and may be established regarding:
● The use of overtime
● Maximum hours of work
● Mandatory rest breaks, etc.
● Prioritization of tasks for workers at highest risk
● Task rotation to avoid monotony
● Self-reporting or raise concerns for a co-worker who may be too fatigued to perform a task.
Worksafe Australia offer some key points to consider regarding guidelines for shift design/scheduling:
● Restrict the number of successive night shifts to no more than three to four if possible
● Avoid early mornings that start before 7 a.m.
● Avoid long work days and weeks by working a maximum of 50 hours per week
● Account for travelling time of workers
● Educate workers
Workers have a right to know about hazards they may encounter as a result of their work — and that includes fatigue. Employees should be educated on fatigue, the risk factors and things that they can do to help minimize their risk, such as:
● Seek assistance for sleep related disorders
● Make sleep a priority and keep a regular sleep schedule and routine
● Maintain a healthy diet and eat light nutritious meals as heavy meals make you feel drowsy and get regular exercise
● Limit caffeine and alcohol, particularly before bedtime
● Train workers on the organization’s FRMP by regularly reviewing the risk assessment, policies and respective procedures.
Some keys to success:
● Organize a team comprised of workers and management to conduct the risk assessment
● Consult with the OHS committee or WHS representative
● Encourage workers to share their perspectives
● Educate management, supervisors and workers to identify signs of fatigue and how to manage them properly
● Regularly review and evaluate your FRMP for effectiveness