Fatigue in the Workplace?
Many day-to-day hazards are easy to identify in the workplace; workplace vehicles, chemicals, noise and many others have physical characteristics which make them easy to recognise and assess. However, fatigue is a workplace hazard that is not always so easy to identify, but it can be present in the workplace all of the time to varying degrees and be embedded into the organisation’s management and workforce.
What makes it more problematic is that the signs of fatigue can be subtle, can vary with the individual and some workers may be aware of but not acknowledge fatigue due to work pressures and concerns about their jobs if it were to be raised.
Fatigue has been identified as a contributory factor in many industrial and commercial accidents, but may not have been identified as a workplace risk factor or even been ignored before the accident occurred. A recent study (1) found that “…fatigue-related impairment is four times more likely to result in work-related incidents than being under the influence of alcohol or drugs.” and …”the incidence of accidents and injuries has been found to be higher on night shifts, after a succession of shifts, when shifts are long and when there are inadequate breaks.” (2) It is an important hazard vector and should be recognised as such.
The work legal frame
Although there is no explicit general legislation for fatigue, the overriding requirements of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work 2005 still apply and the legally required risk assessment process is important here; fatigue is a recognised risk factor in many workplaces and must be identified, assessed and evaluated:
“9.—(1) Without prejudice to the generality of section 8, every employer shall, when providing information to his or her employees under that section on matters relating to their safety, health and welfare at work ensure that the information—…
(i) the hazards to safety, health and welfare at work and the risks identified by the risk assessment,” (3)
There are limited references to fatigue in the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (General Application) Regulations 2007 that relate to display screen equipment in regulation 72 (Schedule 4 – Minimum Requirements for all Display Screen Equipment) and in regulations 147 to 149 (Schedule 8 – Lists of Agents, Processes and Working Conditions Relating to Pregnant, Post Natal and Breastfeeding Employees).
The Organisation of Working Time Act 1997 applies here in Ireland which defines statutory minimum entitlements for the working week, annual leave, night work, breaks and rest periods. The accompanying code of practice is entitled the Code of Practice for Employers and Employees on the Right to Disconnect, published by the Work Relations Commission. Compliance with the 1997 act does not mean that fatigue is still not an issue in the workplace.
What is fatigue?
Fatigue can be generally defined as “a decline in mental and/or physical performance that results from prolonged exertion, sleep loss and/or disruption of the internal clock.” (4) Situations where fatigue in the workplace develop can include:
Boredom in the workplace environment with constant or frequent repetitive and routine tasks.
Night shift work and shift work patterns in general.
Excessive or irregular working hours or badly designed shift rotations.
Excessive workloads within normal working hours or undertaking constant complex or safety-critical activities over long periods.
Work environments in which production is the primary business driver and where health and safety considerations are ignored or not properly assessed.
Low pay work environments where additional jobs are required to supplement incomes.
The results of workplace fatigue can include:
- Tiredness, inattention and falling asleep.
- The underestimation of risk.
- Poor safety and operational performance.
- Self-awareness of fatigue in individuals is usually low.
- Increased accidents and incidents. The American Occupational and Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) states that “Worker fatigue increases the risk for illnesses and injuries. Accident and injury rates are 18% greater during evening shifts and 30% greater during night shifts when compared to day shifts. Research indicates that working 12 hours per day is associated with a 37% increased risk of injury. In a 2005 study reporting on a survey of 2737 medical residents, every extended shift scheduled in a month increased by 16.2 % monthly risk of a motor vehicle crash during their commute home from work.” (5)
How to manage workplace risk
The first step must be to recognise that fatigue is a hazard and needs to be managed like any other – it must be identified, evaluated, assessed and controlled. This is a legal duty of an employer.
Consider the development of a fatigue management process which includes employee awareness and training in fatigue, identification of risk factors created by fatigue in the workplace, consultation with workers on working hours, shifts and work rotations, a means to report and discuss fatigue issues and a monitoring process.
For organisations that operate shift systems including night work, they must consider:
Employees need to be consulted on shifts and work rotations and changes to these regimes need to be risk assessed.
The arrangements for shift work in terms of the workload, work activities (i.e. safety critical tasks?) shift times (8-hour or 12-hour), shift direction and the number of shift rotations required, available welfare facilities and breaks.
It is important to note here that employees may prefer undesirable shifts and working time arrangements, for example, to maximise earning shift bonuses and/or overtime payments.
Recognise that night workers may have disrupted sleep patterns due to daylight sleeping hours.
Consider the orientation or direction of shift rotations – it is better for the shifts to run in a ‘forward rotation’, i.e. morning/afternoon/night.
Fatigue in the workplace needs to be effectively managed as it is a real and potentially expensive hazard vector in many modern-day working environments. OSHA reports that an “…estimated annual cost of $136.4 billion from fatigue-related, health-related lost productive work time to employers.” (6) It has been identified as a contributory factor in many large-scale industrial accidents where employee fatigue was neither recognised or effectively controlled prior to an accident occurring. Shift work, especially in working environments where 12-hour shifts and working at night are normal routines are particularly vulnerable to fatigue issues and need to be properly managed.
(3) – Safety, Health and Welfare at Work 2005, Part 2 – General Duties, Section 9 – Information for Employees
(6) – Ibid.