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Often, efforts toward continuous safety improvement get discarded because of what we prefer to believe about our workforce's fitness for duty, rather than what we actually know about it. Here are three assumptions we've heard from company leaders about fatigue risk and drug use among their employees.

"we have good scheduling, so we don't have a fatigue problem."

This reasoning exhibits two problems.

First, it represents a common issue with the way safety systems are approached, which is reactive. The belief "We don't have a fatigue problem," is based in thinking that there must be nothing to improve in safety until there is a problem. But this means someone has likely already been placed at risk, if not hurt or killed, when a problem is identified. Safety measures should be preventative and proactive, not just in reaction to a discovered problem.

Second, not all fatigue is work-related or the result of shift scheduling. Fatigue symptoms come from all sorts of causes, many of which occur when not at work. To assume that shift work is the only cause of worker fatigue is short-sighted and ignores other causes like illness, medications, working in extreme hot or cold conditions, dehydration, insomnia, stress, and so on. Just because a "fatigue problem" has not been noticed doesn't mean that a workforce is immune to fatigue risk. If you employ human beings, fatigue risk exists.

"we don't have a drug use problem."

It is obviously a good thing that a no drug problem has yet been identified. However, this conclusion likely came as the result of traditional drug testing, which is a trailing indicator--in other words, drug test results provide evidence of past conditions, not present or future ones. A more accurate statement might be, "We haven't had many positive drug tests." A lack of positive tests doesn't mean there will never be any, and it also does not mean that all employees will be drug-free while at work.

Many illicit drug users time their drug use according to their workplaces' random testing cycles, so they are able to abstain and clean out their systems before coming eligible for a drug test. Once the cycle has passed, they start using drugs again, knowing they will not be eligible for testing again for a while. Some readers might believe that this doesn't happen at their workplaces, but without a way to test for impairment in the moment, they cannot actually know that it does not.
Furthermore, the definition of a "drug use problem" is limited to the substances that traditional workplace drug screens are designed to detect. Therefore problematic use of drowsiness-inducing or intoxicating prescription or over-the-counter medications may go undetected. Traditional workplace drug screens cannot detect every substance that can impair a worker's cognition or alertness.

"we don't have a safety problem."

As explained above, waiting for a problem to occur before deciding that safety needs attention and improvement is reactionary, not preventative. A safety system based on reacting to problems does a serious disservice to the workforce because improving the system requires a safety incident to occur first. A company should not have to wait for an employee to be hurt or killed to understand where its safety system may need improvement. Just because no problem has been recognized doesn't mean safety issues will never occur. Workplace safety should not simply be reacting to problems, it should be about preventing them and reducing the manifestation of future hazards.

All of the above share the assumption that because a problem has not been so far recognized, it does not exist and never will. However, studies and reports from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the National Safety Council, the American Society of Safety Professionals, as well as other government agencies, scientists, and professional associations around the world, have made it clear that fatigue and impairment risk is real and ever-present, even in companies that have been fortunate to avoid an accident.

More and more companies worldwide are beginning to realize that the work environment must change with the times, and that excellent safety performance is a constant, conscientious effort that does not look simply at regulatory compliance to measure it. If you still don't think your safety-sensitive organization would benefit from incorporating fatigue management or alertness testing, your competition might.

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