Workplace Health | Week 1 - Fatigue
Tuesday 18th February 2020
What is fatigue?
In the UK there are more than 3.5 million people who are employed as shift workers. These people work in a wide variety of industries such as the emergency services, transport, utilities, retails, food and also healthcare (to name a few). A common cause of fatigue in these jobs is where shift working arrangements have been poorly designed and therefore staff are working long hours which do not balance the demands of work whilst being able to have time to rest and recover. The fatigue caused by this can result in incidents such as injuries and accidents as well as ill health.
The term fatigue is used to refer to the issues that arise from an excess in working time or shift patterns which are poorly designed. In general, it is considered to be a decline in metal and/or physical performance as a result from prolonged exertion, sleep loss and/or disruption of the persons internal body clock. Another thing that fatigue is related to is workload. This is because workers are more easily fatigued if their work is 'machine-paced', complex or even monotonous.
The result of a person suffering from fatigue is that they will show signs such as having slower reactions, memory lapses, decreased awareness, underestimation of risk, absent mindedness, reduced coordination and a reduced ability to be able to process information.
A major issue with fatigue is where it becomes a danger, especially in the workplace. Fatigue can lead to errors and accidents as well as injury and ill health whilst impacting on productivity. Major accidents in history have had fatigue as a root cause, for example; Chernobyl.
What are the key principles in fatigue?
- Like any other hazard, fatigue needs to be managed.
- It is crucial that the risks posed by fatigue are not underestimated. An example of this is the fact that according to the HSE: 'The incidence of accidents and injuries has been found to be higher on night shifts, after a succession of shifts, when shifts are long and when there are inadequate breaks.'
- Employers have a legal duty to manage the risks associated with fatigue. This must be done irrespective of any individual's willingness to work extra hours or have a preference to certain shift patterns for the purpose of social reasons.
- Simply complying with Working Time Regulations alone is not sufficient enough to be able to manage the risks of fatigue.
- Any changes that are made to working hours must be assessed. A key consideration here should be the principles such as those which are contained within the HSE's guidance. Any risk assessments made may include the use of tools such as the HSE's 'fatigue risk index'.
- All employees should be consulted with regards to their working hours and shift patterns.
- Employers should develop a policy that specifically addresses and sets limits on the employee's working hours, shift-swapping and overtime. Having this in place helps to guard against fatigue.
- This policy should then be implemented in order to make arrangements and it should also be monitored and enforced.
- Disturbances in a person's sleep can lead to something which is called 'sleep debt'. This is a form of fatigue which night workers are particularly at risk of due to the fact that their day sleep is often shorter, lighter and can easily be disturbed due to daytime noise and the natural reluctance to sleep during hours of daylight.