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Written by
on 22 July 2014


FatigueFatigue in the Workplace

I’d like to start today’s post with a short quiz. See if you can answer this one-question quiz.

What health and safety factor do you think it is that costs the UK almost £250 million pounds every year, that is responsible for 20% of all accidents on major roads, and is involved in a wide range of industries, from emergency services and healthcare to oil and gas extraction, and from transport to retail and even entertainment?

It’s a pretty major health and safety issue, clearly, and it’s one which very much ties in to the human factor. Equipment, tools and machines can all be controlled fairly well, with appropriate safety measures, procedures, barriers or features installed which prevent accidents. But humans aren’t machines, and it’s this fact which results in so many accidents and issues in the workplace. Have you guessed what it is? The answer, which may surprise you, is fatigue.

The Dangers Of Tiredness In The Workplace

Tiredness is an issue which is very common, and increasingly today our society almost seems to expect industries to work around the clock. Obviously some industries, such as healthcare, have always needed to work around the clock, but with many more industries now needing to expand their hours of operation from 9-to-5 to 24 hour, including local supermarkets, entertainment businesses and manufacturing, it inevitably requires people to work during hours they may not be used to.

A worrying trend seems to be for workers to rotate shifts on a cycle so that sometimes they’ll be working during the day, sometimes late into the night, sometimes during the night, and sometimes working through dawn.

Unfortunately though hundreds of thousands of years of evolution have made us creatures which perform best during the day and are chemically programmed to sleep at night. Whilst it is possible to overcome our natural sleep/wake cycle, at least for a while, it has far-reaching and extremely significant implications in the long run.

As I mentioned at the top of this post, fatigue has been cited as a factor responsible for 20% of all accidents on major roads, and is estimated to cost a quarter of a billion pounds every year as a result of accidents at work. When workers become tired their efficiency reduces, their awareness is dulled and their reactions become slower. Shifting sleep patterns as a result of working different shift cycles leads to stress, which in turn reduces sleep quality, which leads to fatigue, and this in turn increases the likelihood of an accident occurring.

Managing The Risk Of Fatigue At Work

It is important for all businesses to be aware that fatigue is a health and safety hazard, just like blades, dangerous machinery, chemicals and so forth. Managing a hazard such as fatigue is the first step towards reducing the likelihood of an accident, quite apart from taking care of the health and happiness of workers.

I know that some companies tend to turn a blind eye to the risk of fatigue when workers show willing to work extra hours or a sequence of shifts which could lead to fatigue. Turning a blind eye to the willingness of workers to accept a risk is quite unacceptable. These companies would be unlikely to turn a blind eye if workers said they were willing to use non-safety blades at the top of an unsecured ladder in windy conditions. Fatigue is a risk, and turning a blind eye is not an excuse.

Although some workers may prefer shift patterns which work in well with either other jobs or with family commitments it is important to consider the implications of such patterns. They may wish to work nights so that they can see their family during the day, but how will this impact on their mental alertness, and ultimately their ability to do their job safely?

A Policy For Tackling Fatigue Risks

The first step to managing this risk is to develop a policy which protects workers from any increase in fatigue as a result of shift patterns. By all means consult, but don’t be entirely led by workers’ wishes. Time limits should be enforced, and limits on shifts and overtime should be introduced. It’s also important to look at the options available to workers to swap shifts, since this can easily result in people working a combination of shifts which would be unwise.

For help and advice with developing a health and safety policy for reducing the risk of fatigue and the dangers it poses within the workplace feel free to call one of our experienced health and safety consultants who will be happy to help you. Call free today on 0800 1488 677.

About the author

David Cant is a Director at Veritas Consulting. The SME’s favourite go-to consultant for health and safety know-how. Bucket loads of experience. Fluent in practical advice. Solutionist with a brain you can pick. You can find him across social media on Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin.