Extended shifts, rotating or irregular shifts, and long work weeks are par for the course in industries like construction, but working more than 40 hours per week puts people at a greater risk for worker fatigue, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Worker fatigue is typically associated with a lack of sleep, a hard day’s work, or long periods of stress, according to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS). However, the root cause of exhaustion can stem from a variety of sources, including feelings of boredom from completing repetitive tasks. No matter the cause, fatigue is a major workplace issue because it can easily turn into a form of impairment.
In fact, an often-cited study shows that, after 17-19 hours without sleep, performance was equal to or worse than having a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level of 0.05 percent. Going even longer without sleep can cause performance to reach levels equal to a BAC of 0.1 percent.
In this blog, we share information employers can use to help recognize worker fatigue and offer tips to help prevent it.
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How to recognize signs of worker fatigue
Fatigue reduces mental and physical functioning, delays reaction time, and boosts risk-taking behavior, so it’s vital that managers and supervisors are able to identify extreme fatigue symptoms and intervene before an incident occurs. Some of the most common indicators of fatigue include:
- Trouble staying awake
- Inability to concentrate
- Lack of motivation
- Loss of appetite
On the surface, it can be difficult to link many of these symptoms to fatigue because they don’t indicate a major problem on their own. If a worker yawns once during their shift, for example, there’s no need to assume they’re suffering from fatigue.
Therefore, it’s important to take each worker’s standard behavior into consideration. Keep a close watch on someone displaying possible signs of fatigue that are genuinely out of character. It’s especially telling if the person is exhibiting several signs typically associated with fatigue.
Employers should keep special watch on third-shift workers because safety incidents are most likely to occur between midnight and 6 a.m.—traditional sleep hours—according to the Government of Alberta.
5 fatigue management solutions
Since worker fatigue can cause serious incidents or even death, finding ways to reduce or eliminate it must be part of your safety management program. Taking preemptive action is key to prevention, so consider implementing these strategies suggested by OSHA at your company.
1. Be cognizant of work schedules
Nearly 15 million Americans work full-time on evening, night, rotating, or other irregular shifts. This type of schedule can lead to worker fatigue, so if your company operates around the clock, be aware of when employees are working and how many hours they’re putting in each week.
For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends scheduling at least 11 hours off between shifts each 24-hour period. People should also be given at least one full day of rest each week.
If your company uses rotating shifts, the CDC advises using forward rotations—i.e., day to evening to night—and notifying workers of their schedules in advance, especially when a shift change occurs. When possible, people should also not be scheduled to work more than 12 hours at a time.
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2. Take a close look at workloads
Heavy workloads can easily cause fatigue, so make sure you know what each person has on their plate. This will allow you to intervene, if needed, so you can alleviate any issues.
For example, the CDC recommends scheduling physically and mentally demanding workloads and monotonous tasks in shorter shifts and/or during day shifts. This can help employees stay focused and alert, combating worker fatigue, while improving the quality of their output.
3. Make your work environment conducive to alertness
It’s possible your work environment is inadvertently contributing to fatigue. Factors such as dim lighting, high temperatures, and limited visual awareness (possibly due to weather constraints) can foster fatigue.
Avoid this by making pointed changes to physical surroundings to help keep workers on their toes. For example, when possible, you might adjust the temperature, lighting, and noise levels in indoor settings.
4. Empower and educate workers
Teaching employees to recognize the symptoms associated with worker fatigue is one of the best fatigue management solutions. This will allow them to look for obvious signs of fatigue in both themselves and their colleagues.
Additionally, people need training to understand the hazards associated with worker fatigue. When workers know the possible risks, they’re more likely to take fatigue prevention measures seriously.
Offer guidance to help people learn how to take better care of themselves to avoid fatigue. For example, providing education on healthy amounts of sleep and how to get higher quality rest, as well as stress management and nutritious eating tips, can be helpful.
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5. Create a fatigue risk management program
Many federal agencies and national organizations have taken the initiative to establish a fatigue risk management plan. For example, some federal agencies limit the number of hours employees can work each shift.
OSHA advises using resources like the Federal Aviation Administration Fatigue Management Toolbox and the United States Coast Guard Crew Endurance Management Practices Guide to help your company create an effective fatigue risk management program.
Even if your industry is markedly different from those in the resources you review, you’ll still get a strong idea of key topics to include in your plan. Having a company-specific program will formalize rules surrounding worker fatigue prevention and get everyone on the same page.
Worker fatigue is a major problem that must be taken seriously. Implementing safety management measures now can help your team avoid tragic incidents that are fully preventable.
For more help preventing safety incidents before they happen, check out the blog “7 Ways to be More Proactive About Worker Safety.”