Managing the Risk of Fatigue at Work

Sleep is widely recognised as the ‘third pillar of health’, being fundamentally vital in allowing each cell in every organ of the body to continue to function effectively. It’s so critical to our physical and mental health that ensuring a decent night’s sleep helps maintain our ability to think, learn and operate on a daily basis – potentially leading to the impact of fatigue which can dramatically affect workplace safety.

What fatigue looks like

Fatigue is a cumulative and gradual process that manifests in the form of tiredness, lack of energy, exhaustion and reductions in performance capacity. Practically, it can result in:

  • Slower reactions
  • Reduced ability to process information
  • Memory lapses and forgetfulness
  • Absent-mindedness
  • Decreased awareness
  • Lack of attention
  • Underestimation of risk
  • Reduced coordination

Fatigue risks in the workplace

In the work context, the state of mental or physical depletion brought about by fatigue often translates to a reduction in a person’s ability to perform work at an optimal level. As well as reducing productivity and quality of work, fatigue can adversely affect safety in the workplace.

This is because it increases the risk of accidents and injuries due to impaired alertness that can lead to errors, particularly when:

  • Operating fixed or mobile equipment, including driving vehicles
  • Undertaking intensive tasks that are repetitive, physically demanding or require a high level of concentration/are mentally demanding
  • Undertaking ‘fatigue critical’ tasks where there are potentially inherent increased risks of incidents with significant consequences
  • There is extended exposure to hazards such as atmospheric contaminants, noise, vibration or extreme temperature
  • Undertaking night or shift work when a person would ordinarily be sleeping
  • There is inadequate supervision

If the fatigue is not remedied, it can cause serious physical and mental health problems in the long-term, including:

  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Gastrointestinal disorders
  • Lower fertility
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

All workplaces are affected by fatigue to some degree, and some industries and occupations are more likely to be affected by fatigue than others. Industries whose work operates through models of shift work, fly-in fly-out, on-call provisions, frequent travel, seasonal work, emergency services or labour intensive professions are known to be at higher risks of fatigue. Factors occurring outside work may also contribute to fatigue such as a worker’s lifestyle, family responsibilities, other work commitments or predisposition to having poor sleep quality.

Often a number of factors (work and non-work related) combine to increase fatigue to a point where a person may put their own or a colleague’s safety at risk. As a result, both employers and employees have a role to play in making sure any risks associated with fatigue are minimised.

Workplace statistics on fatigue

Recent research on fatigue has uncovered that around 7.4 million Australian adults do not regularly get the sleep they need. This inadequate sleep has consequences for a large proportion of this population, being associated strongly with workplace incidents, accidents on the road and other health conditions such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes. In fact, approximately 6% of the afflicted Australians will experience a secondary health condition as a result of not sleeping enough, which is most likely to be depression, a motor vehicle accident (including on-the-job) or a workplace injury.

The below table breaks down the number of deaths due to inadequate sleep and its consequences for 2016-17, with EDS-SD representing ‘excessive daytime sleepiness due to sleep disorders’.

Of the 3,017 deaths attributable to lack of sleep over 2016-17, workplace injuries made up 94 of this total. The costs of this deficiency are high in many sectors, but especially for sleep-deprived people who unfortunately pay with their lives.

Controlling the risks

The best way to control the health and safety risks arising from fatigue is to eliminate the factors causing fatigue at the source. However, elimination is not always practicable due to the contributing factors often being interrelated.

Different workplaces will also require different interventions to manage the risks of fatigue. This will depend on the industry, types of work and job demands, work scheduling as well as environmental conditions and individual factors.

Where elimination is not possible, the risks associated with fatigue can be managed by following a systematic process which involves:

  • Identifying the factors which may cause fatigue in the workplace (as well as outside)
  • If necessary, assessing the risks of injury from fatigue
  • Controlling risks by implementing the most effective control measures reasonably practicable in the circumstances
  • Reviewing control measures to ensure they are working as planned

Consulting workers at each step of the risk management process encourages everyone to work together to identify fatigue risk factors and implement effective control measures. This dialogue also helps to raise awareness about the risks of fatigue.

For further advice and professional consultation on managing risks of fatigue in your workplace, contact Bodycare today.