Generally, a countermeasure is an action taken to reduce or avoid the effects of an undesirable condition or situation. In managing fatigue, appropriate countermeasures can help improve alertness, maintain performance, and reduce drowsiness. Taking appropriate countermeasures at appropriate times should be a cornerstone of a fatigue risk management system (FRMS), and understanding more about effective fatigue management is a foundation for better employee well-being overall.
preventative vs. operational countermeasures
Fatigue countermeasures can be separated into two categories: preventative and operational. Preventative countermeasures are taken in advance of fatigue symptoms and many are meant to be done outside of the workplace, like for example, getting adequate sleep and proper nutrition. In fact, many preventative countermeasures can be thought of as good habits that promote health and overall well-being.
Still, some preventative countermeasures can be instilled into an organization's culture and the way it manages its human resources. For instance, because shift work itself is known to exacerbate fatigue risk, the National Safety Council proposes scheduling shifts in ways that mitigate circadian disruption, or challenges to the natural sleep/wake cycle that can affect alertness. Scheduling strategies to this effect include scheduling employees for shifts no longer than 10 hours, scheduling employees for fewer than 50 hours a week, and scheduling night shift employees for no more than four consecutive shifts.
Operational countermeasures are actions taken while on the job and are designed to improve alertness levels temporarily in order to maintain safety and productivity.
The rest of this article will focus on operational countermeasures, but keep in mind that the benefits provided by operational countermeasures are only temporary and should not be considered substitutes for appropriate preventative countermeasures and sufficient restful sleep.
choosing appropriate operational countermeasures
Fatigue can result from a variety of circumstances. Researchers assert that no single countermeasure is universally effective; instead, countermeasures should be appropriate to address the exact source of fatigue, if possible, and should also be appropriate for the employee and the work environment. Applying countermeasures in combination, like a "coffee nap," may also be more effective than one countermeasure strategy alone.
1. Physical Activity or Physical Rest
Fatigue commonly arises from physical exertion and repetitive physical tasks, so it is important that employees have regular rest breaks not only to avoid injury but also to avoid the cognitive non-alertness that comes with fatigue as well. Conversely, jobs that are more sedentary but still require alertness and safe performance, like driving, should be punctuated by breaks involving physical activity to increase blood flow throughout the brain and body. Regularly performing actions like brisk walking and light stretching can help employees maintain alertness levels.
In moderate doses, stimulants like caffeine from a cup of coffee can help boost alertness levels. Energy drinks can also serve this purpose, and they are a popular choice. But energy drinks should be used sparingly, as overuse can result in caffeine overdoses, characterized by shaking, elevated heart rate, nausea, and so on, and also result in sleep disturbances and even greater fatigue symptoms. However, a coffee break can be a good way for many employees to maintain safe performance and productivity through the afternoon or other appropriate times of day.
3. Conversation & Socialization
The afternoon coffee break, as an example, can have the added benefit of spurring conversation between employees, which stimulates the brain and can combat drowsiness. Plus, when work crews are communicative and social, their interaction not only helps maintain alertness levels but can also help support and enhance safety culture because of better situational awareness and increased self-accountability. Even regular, brief check-ins with supervisors can be enough conversation to prevent fatigue symptoms from becoming a problem.
Proper hydration and high-protein snacks can be useful ways to alleviate drowsiness, especially because our nutrition is directly tied to our alertness and cognition. Without fuel in the form of nutrition and hydration, the brain and body is more susceptible to fatigue. Foods high in fat and sugar should be avoided, while high-protein and nutritious snacks like nuts, dried fruit, jerky, and granola can boost alertness levels. Plus, because fatigue symptoms can be caused or worsened by environmental factors, the importance of staying cool and hydrated while working in hot conditions is clear.
5. Bright Light Therapy (Circadian Adaptation)
Another way to boost alertness levels is to essentially "trick" the brain to alter its circadian rhythm temporarily, by creating the illusion that it is a different time of day. This practice is most useful for organizations with a 24-hour shift cycle and night shift employees, who work against their natural circadian cycles and have the greatest risk of accident. Administering bright light therapy involves the employee spending time in a very brightly-lit room, or even directly in front of a bright light, often called a "light station." The bright light affects the brain subconsciously, fooling it into greater alertness and performance as if it were daytime rather than a time of night when the brain expects to be resting.
Although not practical in every workplace, napping stations are becoming more common at operations with 24-hour shift cycles, such as mines. A short nap is thought to be the single most effective countermeasure against fatigue from shift work or insufficient sleep. Researchers Khosro Sadeghniiat-Haghighi and Zohreh Yazdi claim that "Naps with 30 min in length or less provide measurable improvement in alertness and performance and decrease fatigue immediately upon waking."
more tips for managing fatigue
If your workers are struggling with fatigue and you want to reduce the resulting safety risks, check out our fatigue management platform PRISM™. PRISM has customizable countermeasure assignment and real-time impairment detection.
- National Safety Council. (2019). Fatigue--You're more than just tired. www.nsc.org/fatigue
Sadeghniiat-Haghighi, K. & Yazdi, Z. (2015). Fatigue management in the workplace. Industrial Psychiatry Journal 24(1): 12-17. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4525425/
- Stromberg, J. (2015, April 23). Scientists agree: Coffee naps are better than coffee or naps alone. Vox.com. https://www.vox.com/2014/8/28/6074177/coffee-naps-caffeine-science