Prevent fatigue to prevent harm
Fatigue dramatically increases the risk of accidents and injuries in the workplace, and reduces productivity and performance. Prolonged fatigue can cause serious physical and mental health problems.
All workplaces are affected by fatigue to some degree. In a work context, fatigue is mental and/or physical exhaustion that reduces a person’s ability to perform their work safely and effectively.1 The cause of fatigue can be work-related or non work related, or both.
Some industries and occupations are more likely to be affected by fatigue than others. Industries whose work operates through things such as shifts, fly in fly out, on call provisions, frequent travel, seasonal work or emergency services are known to be at higher risks of fatigue.
Sleep is critical to our physical and mental health, is fundamental to our ability to think and learn, and critical to maintaining safe and healthy workplaces. Often a number of factors combine to increase fatigue to the point where a person may put their own or another person’s safety at risk. As a result, both employers and employees have a role to play in making sure any risks associated with fatigue are minimised.
The Future of Work Institute, in conjunction with the Western Australian government, has recently conducted comprehensive research into Fly-in-Fly-out (FIFO) workplaces, owing to their higher risk of mental health issues. One of the critical factors influencing the mental health of FIFO workers is ensuring sufficient rest and fatigue management during all stages of a ‘swing’ (rostered time on and off).
Evidence suggests that sleep deprivation, sleep disturbance and fatigue are health risks commonly associated with long working hours. Potential risk factors associated with working hours arrangements include but are not limited to1:
Working hours – number of hours worked, shiftwork, night work, breaks during work, breaks between work periods, seasonal work arrangements
- Demands of the work tasks – repetitive work, physically demanding work; high concentration and/or mentally demanding work
- Fatigue critical tasks – these are tasks where there are potentially increased risks of incidents
- Extended exposure to hazards – exposure to hazardous substances and atmospheric contaminants, exposure to noise, exposure to extreme temperature, exposure to vibration.
- Information and training – provision of information on fatigue management skills and health and lifestyle factors, training on job skills.
- Supervision – for example its adequacy.
- Individual and lifestyle factors – sleep (amount and quality), health, fitness for work, lifestyle factors.
The hazards/hazard factors and risks may be inter-related and, in some cases, cumulative.
In consultation with employees, employers must develop control measures to address the potential risk of fatigue arising from the working hours and demands of the work.
Safe Work Australia’s website contains a 45 minute video on work-related fatigue and job design. Dr Carmel Harrington and Professor Drew Dawson examine why fatigue management is important from both a worker and a business perspective and what businesses and workers can do to manage the risks caused by fatigue in the workplace.
Fatigue management in practice
Different workplaces will require different interventions to manage the risks of fatigue – this will depend on the industry, types of work and job demands, as well as environmental conditions and individual factors.
The risks associated with fatigue can be managed by following a systematic process which involves2:
- Identifying the factors which may cause fatigue in the workplace
- If necessary, assessing the risks of injury from fatigue
- Controlling risks by implementing the most effective control measures reasonably practicable in the circumstances, and
- Reviewing control measures to ensure they are working as planned.
Consulting workers at each step of the risk management process encourages everyone to work together to identify fatigue risk factors and implement effective control measures. Consultation also helps to raise awareness about the risks of fatigue.
Safe Work Australia has produced a guide on Fatigue Management in the Workplace. The guide assists people with duties under occupational health and safety laws (OHS laws) comply with those laws.