One of the most overlooked parts of workplace injury is fatigue. Here we will examine some signs of fatigue and what can be done to avoid workplace injury.
What is Fatigue?
Fatigue is the state of feeling very tired, weary or sleepy resulting from insufficient sleep, prolonged mental or physical work, or extended periods of stress or anxiety. Boring or repetitive tasks can intensify feelings of fatigue. Fatigue can be described as either acute or chronic.
Acute fatigue results from short-term sleep loss or from short periods of heavy physical or mental work. The effects of acute fatigue are of short duration and usually can be reversed by sleep and relaxation.
Chronic fatigue syndrome is the constant, severe state of tiredness that is not relieved by rest. The symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome are similar to the flu, last longer than six months and interfere with certain activities.
Employers and supervisors need to be concerned about the impact of fatigue in the workplace as it can be considered a form of impairment, making fatigue a workplace hazard. However, fatigue levels are not easily measured or quantified; therefore, it is difficult to isolate the effect of fatigue on accident and injury rates. Awareness and observation of changes in behavior is the critical method to identify fatigue. Factors that may influence fatigue are shift rotation patterns, balanced workloads, timing of tasks and activities, availability of resources, and the workplace environment (e.g., lighting, ventilation, temperature, etc).
Research has shown that the number of hours awake can be similar to blood alcohol levels. One study reports the following:
- 17 hours awake is equivalent to a blood alcohol content of 0.05
- 21 hours awake is equivalent to a blood alcohol content of 0.08 (legal limit in Canada)
- 24-25 hours awake is equivalent to a blood alcohol content of 0.10
Fatigue affects people differently but it can increase a worker’s hazard exposure by:
- reducing mental and physical functioning
- impairing judgement and concentration
- lowering motivation
- slowing reaction time
- increasing risk-taking behavior
Signs of Fatigue
- sleepiness including falling asleep against your will ("micro" sleeps)
- reduced alertness, concentration and memory
- lack of motivation
- loss of appetite
- digestive problems
- increased susceptibility to illness
Effects of Fatigue and Relationship to Work
- reduced decision making ability
- reduced ability to do complex planning
- reduced communication skills
- reduced productivity or performance
- reduced attention and vigilance
- reduced ability to handle stress on the job
- reduced reaction time - both in speed and thought
- loss of memory or the ability to recall details
- failure to respond to changes in surroundings or information provided
- unable to stay awake (e.g., falling asleep while operating machinery or driving a vehicle)
- increased tendency for risk-taking
- increased forgetfulness
- increased errors in judgement
- increased sick time, absenteeism, rate of turnover
- increased medical costs
- increased incident rates
How can a workplace help keep workers alert?
Fatigue is increased by:
- dim lighting
- limited visual acuity (i.e., due to weather)
- high temperatures
- high noise
- high comfort
- tasks which must be sustained for long periods of time
- work tasks which are long, repetitive, paced, difficult, boring and monotonous.
Workplaces can help by providing environments which have good lighting, comfortable temperatures, and reasonable noise levels. Work tasks should provide a variety of interest and tasks should change throughout the shift. Awareness education and training about the implications of fatigue, the importance of sleep, balanced diet and exercise, and alertness strategies can also be helpful.
If extended hours/overtime are common, remember to consider the time required to commute home, meal preparation, eating, socializing with family, etc. Workplaces may wish to consider providing:
- on-site accommodations
- prepared meals for workers
- Facilities where employees can take a nap before they drive home
The AWANE Team works hard to provide member businesses with the resources and programs to keep our members and employees safe, healthy, and productive. The AICC Workers Compensation Program in Massachusetts is a cost-saving program giving businesses not only huge up-front premium discounts, but also dividends paid back to members almost every single year.