Our company, Predictive Safety SRP, works with many different industries, and safety experts in our company are always finding situations in work environments that might create safety concerns. We also find hidden issues when we talk to employees, identifying problems that even the most caring managers would never have considered.
We often go onsite to help identify what might have gone unnoticed. Our observations don’t always identify regulatory violations; they can be what are considered annoyances, but they are often connected to bigger issues.
Unexpected Causes Of Fatigue
Once, a new customer had a problem with fatigue in their drivers, and especially with the women drivers. We found out that the women weren’t getting enough hydration during the day. Easy enough to fix – drink more water. But they didn’t want to take water with them in their truck cabs. That was curious, considering the high temperatures and the dusty environment in which they drove all day. When we got a little deeper into the conversation, we found out that the women’s bathrooms on the site were filthy, and the women did everything they could to avoid using them.
Who knew a filthy bathroom could create fatigue?
While the issue had to be brought to the attention of management in ways other than personal complaints of comfort, we all know that most supervisors do care, but don’t have the time to deal with everything that comes across their desks. Their best intentions get set aside while they grapple with what appear to be more pressing issues. It wasn’t until this problem was brought up as a safety issue that management finally dealt with the bathrooms.
Making Fatigue Management A Safety Priority
While management may or may not be aware of issues that contribute to fatigue, concern itself over fatigue is still considerably less prevalent than the actual danger it poses. According to research done by sleep experts who studied construction workers in Vancouver, B.C., the average increased accident risk from lack of sleep alone was 8.9% for all participants; 7.4% for all office workers, and 10.1% for all field workers.1
In the same study, respondents said that they had zero tolerance for drugs or alcohol on the job whereas only 30% of them thought fatigue was an issue unless the person couldn’t do their job. The most important observation in this study to us was that because people felt that fatigue could rarely be identified, it was something that had to be tolerated.
In the last decade or so, fatigue has been studied more than ever, and especially high-risk companies are beginning to take it seriously. It’s not uncommon to have a circadian specialist come in and assess a work schedule, looking for shift anomalies such as rotating shifts or a work schedule with too many days without sufficient rest time, so that’s an excellent place to start.
Another hidden contributor to fatigue is the food employees have available to them when they’re working long shifts. If you have a cafeteria, consider that your third shift workers are preparing to go against their circadian clocks by staying up all night, and while a big carb dinner may be appropriate for most people at the end of the day, it’s the last thing the night shift employees should be eating because lots of carbs make us sleepy.
Fatigue Monitoring Solutions
Fatigue monitoring, such as an automated system that is checking to see if the employee is in their appropriate alertness level, is something to consider. While no one else may be paying attention to how many consecutive shifts someone has been working, and while the employees themselves are just pushing to get through the 7th, or 8th, or 14th shift in a row, an automated system that runs the numbers can pay attention and prevent the possibility of a fatigue-related incident. We sell that kind of system, and it has reduced accidents up to 35% in some workplaces.2
Fatigue is only one factor that leads to cognitive impairment. It could be illness, or emotional distress. But it could also be right under your nose, like a filthy bathroom. Best to take one step back and look at any or all of the elements that are getting in the way of being fit for work. A good place to start is with an employee survey over what they struggle with in their workplace settings. If you need help, let us know.
(1) “Construction Worker Sleep Deprivation and its effects on personal safety” Powell, R and Copping, A (2010)
(2) “Evaluation of Fatigue Systems”, Heitmann, Awake Institute, LLC (2011)