Occupational Fatigue - Taking the Initiative
In July 2016, the National Safety Council launched an initiative on occupational fatigue. "Aside from just an increase in workplace risk, there's also long-term economic consequences," said Emily Whitcomb, senior program manager of the initiative. "NSC is tackling fatigue because as we're working toward eliminating preventable deaths, fatigue is one of the larger issues."
NSC has gathered research with the aim of identifying best practices, conducting a national survey, and releasing a cost calculator, policy toolkit and other educational resources.
The council's review of literature includes several findings:
• About 38 percent of U.S. workers sleep less than seven hours a night, according to a 2016 study from NIOSH
• Several studies state that workers who have a sleeping disorder are more likely to be involved in a workplace safety incident
• Fatigue-related productivity losses cost almost $2,000 per worker each year, according to estimates from a 2010 study conducted by Cupertino, CA-based Alertness Solutions
"Fatigue has always been a problem – there's always been shift work, people have always not gotten their full night's rest," Whitcomb said. "It has started to come to light more in the past 20 years, when the research really started showing it was causing unsafe work practices, when it was increasing risk in the workplace.
"Probably in the last 10 years, as we've looked more at wellness in the workplace, it's gotten a lot more attention. A lot more employers are wanting to address fatigue in the workplace because they're starting to see those increased risks and lack of productivity from those employees who are fatigued."
Although workers can help prevent fatigue through measures such as taking breaks and adopting better sleep habits, employers can also help combat the issue.
A November 2016 report from RAND Europe, part of the nonprofit research organization RAND Corp., concluded that lack of sleep results in a 13 percent increased risk of death and the loss of 1.2 million workdays per year in the United States. The report offers the following recommendations for employers:
• Understand the importance of sleep and promote it
• Create brighter workplaces with settings for naps
• Deter lengthy use of electronic devices after work
According to a Liberty Mutual report, recommendations for scheduling include:
• Working during the day rather than at night
• Restricting consecutive day shifts to five or six days and night shifts to four days
• Ensuring workers have at least two consecutive days off
• Making schedules consistent
• Providing frequent breaks
Supervisors should be alert for signs of excessive fatigue among workers, such as yawning, head dropping, and difficulty remembering or concentrating, according to the statement from ACOEM.
Technology also can be used to monitor fatigue. For example, Chicago-based USG Corp., a manufacturer of construction materials, placed sensors in its trucks to monitor operators after one dozed off behind the wheel, resulting in the truck traveling up a berm and its load tipping over. The operator, who had worked more than 55 hours the previous week and was helping his family with another job, was uninjured, Justin Dugas, safety and health director at USG, said during the NSC panel. (USG is a member of the Campbell Institute at NSC.)
The sensor tracks an operator's eye movements and sends alerts through a loud buzzing or vibration of the seat when distracted driving or sleep is detected. Video footage is sent to a monitoring center for analysis.
During the initial months after the sensors were installed, two or three fatigue-related incidents occurred daily. They decreased to two or three per week, then one or two per month, Dugas said.
"[It's] significant improvement in terms of fatigue events, and this is now, as a result, part of our standard equipment specification for all our haulage units," he added.
In addition, a risk management system can help mitigate fatigue (see "Fatigue risk management systems," above). A risk management system can include reporting of fatigue-related incidents, investigation, training and auditing, Marks said, adding that "it would include things like making sure sleep disorders are covered on the insurance plan, and people are encouraged to get this evaluated."
Even if a company does not invest in a complex management system, it can share messages about fatigue, such as the importance of not consuming alcohol before bedtime.
"These are little things that can come out in toolbox safety talks, little five-minute lectures on a topic to pass on the information," Marks said.
Other ways to mitigate worker fatigue include moving safety-sensitive work to other employees or another time to take advantage of alertness, taking breaks, ingesting caffeine and changing environmental factors, according to ACOEM.
"Being cognizant of how the workplace is set up, how the work is handled, will help improve some of those issues," Marks said.
"The things that can help: improving lighting, making sure the temperature is cooler – especially at night – minimizing humidity, noise, vibration. As employers are looking at reengineering workplaces or building new ones, these are things that can be put in place at the beginning or during retrofit to help minimize some of these situations."