Every business and industry is affected to some degree by fatigue. However, some types of work and some sectors have an inherently higher risk of fatigue, particularly when shift work is part of their business model.
Fatigue: a definition
Fatigue is more than feeling tired and drowsy. In a work context, fatigue is mental and/or physical exhaustion that reduces your ability to perform your work safely and effectively.
Signs of fatigue include:
- tiredness even after sleep
- reduced hand-eye coordination or slow reflexes
- short term memory problems and an inability to concentrate
- blurred vision or impaired visual perception
- a need for extended sleep during days off work.
Causes of fatigue
Causes of fatigue can be work related, personal or a combination of both. They can also be short term or accumulate over time.
Work causes of fatigue might include:
- prolonged or intense mental or physical activity
- sleep loss and/or disruption of your internal body clock
- organisational change
- exceptionally hot or cold working environments
- work scheduling
- excessively long shifts
- not enough time to recover between shifts
- strenuous jobs
- long commuting times.
Some workers are at a high risk of fatigue because their work typically involves some or all of these factors, for example:
- shift workers
- night workers
- fly-in, fly-out workers
- drive in, drive out workers
- seasonal workers
- on-call and call-back workers
- emergency service workers
- medical professionals and other health workers.
Impacts of fatigue in the workplace
Fatigue in the workplace doesn’t only impact on workers’ mental and physical health, it can also impact on the health and safety of those around them.
Fatigue can result in a lack of alertness, slower reactions to signals or situations, and affect a worker’s ability to make good decisions. This can increase the risk of incidents and injury in a workplace, particularly when:
- operating fixed or mobile high risk plant
- driving a road vehicle, such as a taxi or courier van
- working at heights
- taking part in medical or surgical procedures and settings
- working with flammable or explosive substances
- hazardous work, for example electrical work.
Managing fatigue in the workplace
Everyone in the workplace has a work health and safety duty and can help to ensure fatigue doesn’t create a risk to health and safety at work.
Examples of identifying factors that may cause fatigue in the workplace include:
- consulting workers—managers, supervisors and health and safety representatives—about the impact of workloads and work schedules, including work-related travel and work outside normal hours
- examining work practices, systems of work and worker records, for example sign in-out sheets
- reviewing workplace incident data and human resource data.
- work scheduling
- shift work and rosters
- job demands
- environmental conditions
- non-work related factors
- workplace fatigue policy.
Providing information and training to workers about the factors that can contribute to fatigue and the risks associated with it will help them to not only do their job, but also implement control measures to minimise the risk of fatigue in the workplace.
Training about fatigue and relevant workplace policies should be arranged so it is available to all workers on all shifts.
Once control measures are implemented, they should be monitored and reviewed to make sure they remain effective. Consider implementing trial periods for any new work schedules and encouraging workers to provide feedback on their effectiveness.
For more information on managing the risk of fatigue in the workplace see Identify, assess and control hazards.
Shift design and rostering
When it comes to designing shifts and rostering there is no silver bullet; it’s not just the roster and it’s not just the duration of the shift.
It’s challenging for organisations to work out how to risk assess a roster and how to work out what controls it should or shouldn’t have in place because the risk profile for different jobs can be quite different, and this makes the process complex.
It’s also important that instead of thinking ‘I’m compliant with my rules of rostering therefore it’s safe’, you should be asking ‘what’s the likelihood that my staff will be fatigued and what level of control do I need to implement within the workforce in order to manage that risk?’
Appendix B of the Guide for managing the risk of fatigue at work provides some useful guidelines for shift design, for example:
- Offer workers a choice of a permanent roster or rotating shifts.
- Restrict the number of successive night shifts (no more than three to four if possible).
- Avoid early morning starts and move early shift starts before 6am forward (for example a 7am start not a 6am one).
- Avoid long working hours (more than 50 hours per week).
- Build regularly free weekends into the shift schedule, at least every three weeks.
- Use a rapid rotation of shifts (a select number of days) or a slow rotation of shifts (a select number of weeks). Shift design should take into account individual differences and preferences as far as possible. Use forward rotation (morning/afternoon/night).
- Arrange start/finish times of the shift to be convenient for public transport, social and domestic activities.
- Account for travelling time of workers.
We have published a seminar featuring Dr Carmel Harrington and Professor Drew Dawson, who discuss their views on why fatigue management is important and what businesses and workers can do to manage the risks caused by fatigue in the workplace.
They discuss how shift work schedules can impact the time workers have to physically and mentally recover from work. As sleep and rest are the usual way we recover from physically and mentally demanding tasks, it’s important that we get a good amount of sleep and that it’s good quality.
- The length and quality of sleep—as well as the length of time since you last rested—can impact your ability to perform efficiently, effectively and safely.
There are enormous cognitive deficits when we don’t sleep. Any performance gains we think we’re making due to not sleeping and staying awake are non-existent.
Professor Dawson notes that population studies recommend seven to nine hours of sleep. He believes the threshold is six hours and says that if people fall below that, they will be at about double the risk of an accident or injury.
In addition, if they go below five hours sleep he says there is measurable impairment that’s inconsistent with safe work.
Professor Dawson believes we should say ‘this is how much sleep you need in order to work safely’, and ‘if you’ve had less than this amount of sleep, tell someone’.
Your responsibility as a worker
Workers have a duty to take reasonable care for their own safety and health and make sure their acts or omissions don’t adversely affect the health or safety of others.
There are different ways workers can make sure they’re not at risk of fatigue in the workplace. To reduce the risk of being involved in a work incident caused by fatigue, you should:
- Comply with your organisation’s policies and procedures relating to fatigue.
- Understand your sleep, rest and recovery needs and get adequate rest and sleep away from work.
- Seek medical advice and help if you have or are concerned about a health condition that affects your sleep and/or causes fatigue.
- Assess your own fitness for work before starting.
- Monitor your level of alertness and concentration while you’re at work.
- Look out for signs of fatigue in the people you work with.
- In consultation with your supervisor take steps to manage fatigue, for example take a break or shift naps (night shift), drink water, do some stretching or physical exercise, adjust the work environment (for example lighting and/or temperature).
- Talk to your supervisor if you think you’re at risk of fatigue.
- Assess your fatigue levels after work and make sensible commuting and accommodation decisions (for example avoid driving if you are feeling fatigued).
SWA is not a regulator and cannot advise you about fatigue management. If you need help, please contact your state or territory work health and safety authority.