Taking a closer look at fatigue at work

Fatigue at work may not be just from lack of sleep. Workplace elements like tasks, environment, and facility design can also contribute to fatigue. 

Photo of: Film crew filming movie scene in an outdoor location

Photo credit: istock.com/Felix Seichter

When workers are tired, the risk of incidents and injuries to themselves, other workers, and members of the public increases. Improving sleep (easier for some than others) can help, but that’s only part of a much bigger picture.

For decades, people have used scheduling and personal measures (such as adjusting eating and sleep habits) to try to reduce fatigue at work, says Heather Kahle, a human factors specialist at WorkSafeBC. “But it requires a much more holistic approach. You need to determine how workplace systems might contribute to fatigue.”

Fatigue can influence us in many ways. It reduces:

  • Alertness and vigilance
  • Reaction time and the ability to react appropriately
  • Memory and recall
  • Ability to make effective and/or quick decisions
  • Information processing
  • Effective communication

This list comes from WorkSafeBC’s webpage “Fatigue impairment,” which also discusses causes, responsibilities, and ways to reduce risk.

How can employers reduce the risk?

Heather says that to reduce risk from fatigue in the workplace, employers should examine organizational practices, policies, scheduling, task and facility design, and human performance. “These should be enhanced to ensure that if a worker is fatigued, they can still work safely.”

She recommends that employers explore answers to questions such as the following: What could happen in the workplace when people are fatigued? Who is at greatest risk of harm from fatigue-related incidents?

Heather says that employers will also need to conduct a risk assessment to identify tasks that require a lot of memory, attention, safety, critical communication, or quick reaction time. “These elements are particularly affected by fatigue and may be more susceptible to error,” she says.

Ask workers about their experiences and concerns

Heather says employers should also talk to their workers. “Engage workers, especially shift workers, and get their feedback about the tasks they perform. A conversation can help you get a full understanding of what workers are experiencing on the job.” You could reference the contributing factors, which are outlined in Fatigue risk in the workplace.

Heather recalls that when long-haul truck drivers were surveyed about fatigue concerns, the survey generated valuable insights. Drivers pointed to tight timelines, poor road design, limited pull-offs, and long hours of work. She says that knowing the drivers’ concerns helped to shine a light on the “system drivers” of fatigue risk.

Fatigue at work is also common for many who work in the motion picture and performing arts industries. I wrote a post about this, Managing fatigue when you work long hours, after a friend mentioned his fatigue from 14-hour shifts. He said: “It’s cheaper to pay overtime and work the crew long days than it is to pay for another day with all the gear, so we work at all different times of day and night.”

Regardless of the industry, employers need to understand how the interplay between people, workplace conditions, and management factors affects the risk of fatigue in the workplace. Says Heather: “Addressing fatigue-related factors in all elements of the system will provide the greatest likelihood of developing effective and sustainable controls.”

For information about driving while fatigued, see Driver fatigue overview from B.C.’s Road Safety at Work.

Thank you to Heather for speaking with me about this.

Share this safety message:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *