Workplace Fatigue – What is It & How to Combat It

How many times have we all not done something the way it should be done simply because we are too tired? Or cut corners to shave a little bit of time off a project because it’s been so intense to work on?  How many near misses with errors or injuries have we all had because we are unable to focus or have turtle speed reaction times?

Employee fatigue can be expensive, decrease your companies’ productivity and ultimately your bottom line.  Employers and employees are becoming increasingly aware that workplace fatigue can be a serious safety issue.

Let’s dig into workplace fatigue a bit and see what we all can do to help combat this surprisingly common and often overlooked safety concern.

What is fatigue?

The dictionary defines fatigue as “extreme tiredness resulting from mental or physical exertion or illness”.  Fatigue can be caused by a number of things, both work and personal.  Physical stresses such as lifting heavy objects or operating machinery or tools for long periods of time can cause physical fatigue.  Mental stresses such as prolonged periods of intense focus or long, difficult or spirited meetings can cause mental fatigue.  Other factors such as long commutes, working overnight shifts, not having adequate rest during or after shifts, long hours, work environment conditions like dim lighting or noisy conditions, longer hours, can all play a role in workplace fatigue.  Even having poor social interactions with your co-workers can cause fatigue.  It’s not just about how much or how good of sleep you get.

Effects of fatigue

Fatigued people lack focus and fall behind on projects or simply don’t have the energy to pay attention to what is going on around them.  Slower reaction times and decreased cognitive ability can have devastating safety consequences. Simply put – when people are fatigued they tend to make bad choices.  In this article from the National Safety Council (NSC), Fatigue – You’re More Than Just Tired, there are some eye-opening facts on fatigue and what it does to our bodies, our productivity, our mental health, and overall wellness.

Fatigued workers are also more apt to contract common illnesses and struggle with overcoming them.  Since people suffering from fatigue are already experiencing physical effects from fatigue they are more susceptible to common illnesses and can’t fight them off as easily.  That, in turn, leads to more sick days, less production time, and yep, more stress.  It can be a vicious cycle.

Who does fatigue affect?

While fatigue affects everyone, night shift workers, drivers, healthcare, and construction workers are most a risk.  According to this article published by OSHA our bodies operate on a circadian rhythm sleep/wake cycle. It is naturally programmed for sleeping during night hours. Demanding work schedules may disrupt the body’s natural cycle, leading to increased fatigue, stress and lack of concentration.  Long work hours and extended and irregular shifts may lead to fatigue and to physical and mental stress.

How does fatigue harm the workplace?

Some of the most deadly catastrophes in the past 30 years have been caused in part by fatigue due to sleep deprivation.  According to this article citing Dr. Denis Cronson;  in the Exxon Valdez oil spill, employees had been working up to 14-hour shifts and a tired third mate had fallen asleep at the wheel, causing the second largest oil spill in American history. In the Chernobyl disaster, the power plant exploded after engineers had worked 13 hours or more, causing probably the worst nuclear disaster in history. In the Canadian National train disaster, two crewmen on one of the freight trains suffered from sleep apnoea that caused chronic sleeplessness and resultant fatigue and crashed into another train, spilling 3000 gallons of diesel and finally in the Air France disaster, the official report concluded that the pilot had had only had one hour of sleep the night before, and was taking a nap when the plane collided with a tropical storm, killing all 228 people on board.

OK so those are extreme examples but they put into perspective what can happen with fatigued workers.  And what can happen if employers don’t recognize and address fatigue in their employees?  Here are some examples from Safety News Alert of how fatigue can harm our workplaces:

  1. Improper safety enforcement and major injury. Major industrial incidents have been linked to sleep deprivation, including the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island nuclear disasters. An investigation showed that some workers at a BP refinery in Texas where an explosion led to the death of 15 workers had worked 12 hours a day for nearly 30 days in a row.
  2. Impaired motor skills. The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found 17 to 19 hours without sleep has the same effect as a 0.05% blood alcohol level. Employee response times can be cut in half, much like when someone is intoxicated.
  3. Poor decision-making and risk-taking. Studies show losing sleep can lead to riskier behavior. Employees may make impulsive decisions without realizing it.
  4. Poor memory and information processing. Being tired can make it difficult to focus on and retain new information. Slow cognitive function can be particularly problematic in jobs that require strong problem-solving skills.
  5. Falling asleep on the job. This is the worst-case scenario. Employees won’t be able to respond to a hazard. This was the case in the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.
  6. Special risk for shift workers. Fatigued workers are most susceptible to accidents between midnight and 8 a.m. Long and rotating shifts pose a greater health concern than a traditional, eight-hour shift.
  7. Inability to deal with stress. Getting less than seven to eight hours of sleep per night can have lasting effects on mood and stress levels. Personal issues have been cited as a primary or secondary cause for industrial accidents.
  8. Sleep deprivation reduces productivity. The U.S. loses $136.4 in productivity each year due to sleep deprivation. As work hours increase, output decreases.
  9. Sleep deprivation impacts workers in the long-term. Chronic sleep deprivation can lead to obesity, worsening of diabetes, heart disease, digestion problems, depression, some cancers, reproductive problems, and sleep disorders. Fatigue also reduces immunity against viruses, increasing the likelihood that a cold or flu will spread.
  10. Overlooking signs of fatigued workers. There are no specific safety regulations for extended work shifts in the general industry, although there are some in industries such as transportation. The American Safety Council says the lack of regulations can lead to a lack of discussion with employees about the issues involving fatigue.

SO……what the heck do we do about it?

Now that are you sufficiently bombarded with doom and gloom facts….let’s talk about how we can recognize, deal with, and help prevent fatigue in our workplace.

We understand that you can’t control your employees once they are off the clock.  You can’t tuck them into bed every night, but there are things you can do to help them understand how to deal with fatigue and how to let you know when they are getting to their breaking point.

  • Provide training about the hazards and signs of fatigue
  • Limit overtime to short stretches or alternating weeks
  • Schedule and enforce breaks
  • Encourage employees to get outside during their break time
  • Add more and shorter breaks for those working in extreme heat or cold
  • Brighten up your facility – dim lighting can cause fatigue
  • Cool it down – toasty temperatures make people tired
  • Reduce noise when possible or provide quiet areas where people can go to decompress or escape the noise but still work
  • Vary job tasks to eliminate long periods of repetition
  • Switch up those job tasks that are boring or mentally tasking
  • Provide resources on how to achieve a work-life balance
  • Introduce shorter shifts when your workload allows
  • Provide healthy snacks for employees and encourage them to partake
  • Encourage exercise and mediation
  • Organize fun times for your employees to get together and de-stress – either within working hours or outside
  • Pay attention to your employees – if you see someone struggling ask how you can help
  • Be an open door – let your employees know they can talk to you and that you are prepared to help them
  • Encourage employees and co-workers to help each other
  • Let in the fresh air – open the doors and let some fresh air in.  Use bug / screen doors to keep out pests.
  • Maintain your equipment – equipment that is constantly running poorly can cause mental stress & fatigue.  Equipment that is dangerous or malfunctioning can cause physical fatigue and injury.  Proactive maintenance at your facility can go a long way to finding small problems before they become big ones

We hope that we have given you some helpful information and actions that you can take to increase awareness of fatigue at your facility and with your employees and co-workers.

As always, please Contact Us, if you have any questions about our products or services.  We are here to help in any way that we can.


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