Waking up to the risks of workplace fatigue

There is a culture of thinking, ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead,’ or ‘Sleep is for lazy people’!

“We have a history of incentivizing people who work long hours with extra pay, promotions and recognition.” ~ Emily Whitcomb, senior program manager, fatigue initiative, at the National Safety Council

The failure to prioritise rest is a growing concern and taking a toll on workers worldwide.

Chronic fatigue is more than just a quality-of-life issue. “It’s estimated that about 13% of workplace injuries can be attributed to employees with sleep problems, and 21% of fatal crashes may involve a drowsy driver,” Whitcomb said. “There’s really no shortage of research out there that shows us a tired worker is more likely to be involved in an incident or get hurt at work.”

Despite all the research, how has such a significant risk factor gotten so little attention in the workplace? One reason is a simple lack of data.

“When employers fill out paperwork for an incident in the workplace, most are not asking about fatigue, how much sleep the person got or how many hours they worked in the last couple of days,” Whitcomb said. “So, while we know it’s a significant contributing factor to a good portion of workplace injuries and incidents, it’s hard for us to conceptualize just how big the problem is.”

Elements of a fatigue risk management system

According to the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine’s 2012 guidance statement, “Fatigue Risk Management in the Workplace,” a fatigue risk management system may include:

A fatigue management policy
  1. Risk management, including collecting information on fatigue as a hazard, analyzing its risk and creating controls to mitigate that risk
  2. A reporting system for employees
  3. Incident investigation
  4. Management training and education for employees, management and even their families
  5. Sleep disorder management
  6. A process for the internal and external auditing and continuous improvement of the FRMS
Finding solutions

The prevalence of fatigue may lead to the perception that it’s an inevitable part of living and working in the modern world. However, as awareness grows, organizations, government agencies and employers are taking on this problem and finding solutions.

Recommended strategies include:
Establishing a fatigue risk management system

“A fatigue risk management system is a set of policies, practices and programs that you incorporate into an existing safety management system in order to effectively manage fatigue in the workplace,” Whitcomb said.

Addressing environmental stressors

Make sure working conditions aren’t adding difficulty to the shift. For example, provide adequate lighting, maintain comfortable temperatures, reduce noise and ensure workers have access to food.

Invest in rest

When resources are thin or shift schedules are difficult to change, safety professionals hoping to implement these strategies may expect some pushback from employers. To gain buy-in, experts suggest highlighting the following points:

Managing fatigue is a legal responsibility

“Employers must implement measures to monitor and limit worker exposures to health and physical hazards in the workplace, as required by the Occupational Safety and Health Act,” Caruso said. Federal and state regulators for some industries also require some form of fatigue mitigation, such as capped work hours and established minimum rest periods between shifts.

Managing fatigue is good business

It’s easy to assume that increasing work hours will maximize productivity. “It is harder to envision the loss in productivity from a few hours of sleep deprivation,” Barnes said. “Many employers just assume that high motivation will offset the effects of sleep deprivation, but that ignores the biological realities. To compound the situation, employers often think in terms of the quantity of performance, but forget about how sleep deprivation can undermine the quality of performance as well.”

When workers are fatigued, performance and productivity can suffer a number of ways, including:
  1. Higher levels of absenteeism, presenteeism and tardiness.
  2. Higher rates of incidents, errors and do-overs.
  3. Increased likelihood of unethical or unprofessional behavior.
  4. Decrease in engagement and helpful behaviors.
  5. Increases in the time needed to complete tasks.
  6. Fatigue is expensive. Beyond the costs of diminished performance and productivity, experts pointed to fatigued workers’ greater use of health care resources, as well as higher workers’ compensation and other insurance rates.

Construction workers from two public works departments in Portland, OR, completed three surveys over a 12-month period. The data collected, which was part of an Oregon Healthy Workforce Center study, was used to determine the respondents’ self-reported sleep quality and quantity, and was then compared with subsequent reports on safety behavior and workplace injuries.

Respondents who reported more insomnia symptoms, on average, experienced more “cognitive failures” – such as lapses in attention, memory or action – at work. More failures were related to an increase in minor injuries and a reduction in required and voluntary safety behaviors.

Among the cognitive failures:
  • Not remembering correct work procedures or if equipment was turned off.
  • Unintentionally pressing a control switch on machines.
  • Stopping or starting the wrong machine unintentionally.
  • Daydreaming instead of listening to a co-worker.

“Organizations, especially safety-sensitive ones like construction, should care about their employees’ sleep because it can impact the safety of the workplace and put workers at risk,” Rebecca Brossoit, study co-author and a CSU graduate student, said in a June 5 press release.

“There’s a business case for caring about sleep.” The study is scheduled to be published online Nov. 29 in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.
https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2018-60899-001?doi=1

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