When it comes to fatigued workers, there is plenty of cause for concern. Overly tired workers are not only a danger to themselves, but also their coworkers and your bottom line.
“We know from experience and research that fatigued workers are less productive and more likely to have accidents,” Paul Porter, EMC Senior Risk Improvement Engineer, comments.
According to a JOEM study, fatigue costs United States employers $136.4 billion per year in health-related lost work time. In addition, a 2018 report by the National Safety Council found that two-thirds of United States workers (nearly 107 million workers) experience fatigue. Paul encourages employers to take a comprehensive and proactive approach to preventing this workplace epidemic.
Causes of Workplace Fatigue
The link between fatigue and lack of sleep is clear. Fatigue typically results from too few hours of rest, sleep disruption or a sleep disorder. But Paul notes other causes of fatigue that aren’t as well recognized.
Daylight Savings Time (DST) Changes: While the beginning of savings time in the spring is often the hardest adjustment, the fall change still can disrupt circadian rhythms. Paul notes that research has shown that even a one-hour shift in sleep due to DST can lead to more frequent and more severe injuries on the job.
Shift Work: “It’s long been understood that those working through the night tend to be less productive than daytime workers,” Paul says. It’s a matter of biology—shiftwork challenges people to work and sleep against the natural design of their circadian rhythms. In other words, people aren’t made to be night owls.
However, about 10 million Americans work night shifts. And the National Safety Council estimates that 62% of night shift workers complain about sleep loss. Fatigue-related safety risks increase during night shifts, especially between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. Early morning start times and late afternoon shifts can also rob employees of sleep, and workers who frequently switch shifts are more prone to fatigue.
Working Conditions: Fatigue can be triggered by the work environment. Working too many hours without a pause can induce tiredness. It can also be caused by a physical load (awkward postures, forceful exertions, repetitive movements), mental load (stress, demands, irregular hours) or environmental load (temperature, noise, light). Foregoing food and water breaks can also add to the issue.
EMC loss control experts like Paul use the hierarchy of hazard control when dealing with workplace safety issues like fatigue. “We start with a job hazard analysis to determine the cause of injuries. Then, we implement engineering and/or administrative controls to mitigate future losses,” Porter explains.
The top 5 causes of workplace fatigue: inadequate sleep, poor lighting, dehydration, repetitive work, skipping meals
- Making ergonomic changes that reduce awkward postures, forceful exertions and repetitive movements
- Adjusting environmental elements such as lighting, temperature and noise to increase employee alertness
- Carefully monitoring for safety hazards and correcting any problems immediately as fatigued employees could be working on autopilot and cognitively unaware of safety risks until it’s too late
- Automating high force, high repetition tasks with workers managing processes rather than performing them
- Balancing workload and staffing levels to reduce excessive overtime
- Training employees on the prevalence, impact and health risk of sleep disorders
- Providing adequate breaks, plenty of fluids and a place to rest
- Educating managers to look for signs of fatigue and giving them the authority to take appropriate action to improve alertness among workers
- Rotating workers, especially during evening and night shifts and if tasks are repetitive or physically or mentally challenging
- Checking in on workers to be sure they are not fatigued
- Scheduling tasks at times when workers will be most alert—the most dangerous times to perform difficult and critical tasks are from 2-6 a.m. or in the last half of any shift
Create a Fatigue Management Program
Develop a Fatigue Risk Management program that allows your business to put the pieces together. A program will also provide a map of what you’ve accomplished, where you are now and what work remains to be implemented. Include documentation, research, training, reporting of any fatigue-related incidents and checklists of who is responsible for which procedures.